It was just as they said it would be. Like walking into a fairy tale. Quaint villages lined with brightly painted stucco houses with rust-colored tile roofs, fortified churches and watchtowers, an architecture at once Classic and Romantic. Furrowed fields in a patchwork, horse-drawn carts, forests brimming with wolves and bears and a sense that not only have we left behind the 20th and 21st centuries but even the late 18th is seeming a bit too hectic for this cultural landscape.
This is Transylvania, one of the rarest cultural landscapes in the world, where villages settled by “Saxons” (actually from Luxembourg, Westphalia and Mosel valley) from the 12th century have been preserved in the heart of Romania. This became a project of Global Heritage Fund in late 2012 and in my final week as a GHF staffer I had the opportunity to enjoy this place and see how – like Guizhou – it is an opportunity to preserve not simply buildings, but a unique cultural landscape increasingly rare in our radically urbanized world. This pastoral ideal is shared by civilizations East and West, North and South – to have a connection to the land, to dig one’s hands into the rich loam of a cultural inheritance, to measure the days by the evening greetings, the rising moon, cicada flutters, cock’s cries and the swirling racing of the sheperd’s dog.
How do you save this? The first Global Heritage Fund project was to help create a kiln, needed to make the traditional tiles that are increasingly thereatened by industrial tiles that lack their richness and depth. We saw the kiln in action – or rather, the tile making and drying, for the kiln will fire some 14000 tiles in a week. This is near the village of Apos.
The drying shed, with reclaimed roof tiles.
Mixing the clay with a one-horsepower engine.
Making the tiles
There are nearly 170 Transylvanian Saxon towns, each centered on a fortified church and featuring a settlement pattern dating from the Mosel valley in the 12th century. Rows of houses with gates into a courtyard that features auxiliary buildings and is backed by a large barn that is contiguous with neighboring barns. Behind are individual fields. The churches, originally Catholic, all became Evangelical Lutheran during the reformation, despite being surrounded by Catholic Hungarians, Greek Catholic and Orthodox Romanians and Roma. The Saxons came at the invitation of the Hungarian king, who wanted to fortify this rich land (once Roman Dacia) against invading Tatars and Turks, hence the fortified churches,
Fortress church at Viscri (Deutschen Weisskirche)
Fortified church in Archita
The Saxons began to leave after World War II, and with the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, the rump German population of about 400,000 nearly all left for Germany. Only about 35,000 remain, so part of the challenge is to save a landscape that has been inherited by Romanian and Roma populations. Fortunately, there is hope, because this landscape was historically diverse and there is interest in keeping the houses, the churches, and small farm fields – more about those later.
Typical facade, Daia
Auxiliary buildings left and barn behind, Daia
Fields behind barns, Daia
The Saxons were a blessing for historians because they put dates on EVERYTHING! Beams in the houses, sheepskin coats,, treasure chests, you name it, they dated it.
Ceiling beam in a Daia house 1822
Artifacts in Eugen Vaida’s ethnography museum, Altina
Last year I worked with GHF Chair Dan Thorne to focus our scattered efforts in Transylvania on one village, where we could have a measurable impact and create a model that would ideally be imitated by others. The village is Daia – once Denndorf – and the results are encouraging. We focused first on emergency repair and stabilization, and also on restoring facades. Our next steps will tackle more of the cultural landscape, but first a few views of the work so far in this village of about 280 houses and more than 600 milk cows.
Facade restored in Daia, 2015.
This restoration included reclaiming the original inscription in German in the center of the facade.
Another restored facade, Daia
A roof repair we funded.
And another successful project.
The work is led by Eugen Vaida, an architect and tireless advocate, who together with his wife and fellow architect Vera, has been saving houses throughout the Carpathian village of Transylvania under the mantle of his non-profit Monumentum. He also works with William Blacker, famed author of Along the Enchanted Way who has worked to save these village landscapes for decades along with Prince Charles of England. ARTTA – The Anglo-Romanian Trust for Traditional Architecture, is another key partner. (If you have been paying attention to this blog you know it is ALL about the partnerships!!)
Eugen Vaida at his home in Altina, where he maintains a museum of Transylvanian ethnicity
The next stage is to work on the cultural landscape. Daia has a surfiet of cows, and Prince Charles did donate a milk storage container, but what if we upped the value of the milk by turning it into artisanal cheese? We met with organic farmers Willy and Lavinia Shuster in the village of Mosna, and Lavinia has had success making cheese.
Willy and cheese.
Another idea is to build a community kitchen where locals could make preserves and other products that add value to existing crops and what amounts to an agricultural subsistence economy. We met with ADEPT, founded in 2002 and headquartered in Saschiz. Their story is fascinating because it reminded me of how conservation organizations are now approaching the challenge of biodiversity.
ADEPT helps local farmers in a whole variety of ways, from a community kitchen where they can make jams and preserves, inexpensive fruit dryers, assistance in production, marketing and branding their products so that small-scale farms can survive. But here is the kicker – ADEPT was not founded to save small farms. It was founded to protect biodiversity – it is a conservation organization. But, as I have written before, conservation organizations are rapidly abandoning the unworkable wilderness model for the more effective and sustainable indigenous managed landscape model.
Cartesian dualism – what a joke!
It turns out that when 5000 families farm 85000 hectares of rolling landscape without fences and with a diversity of small agricultural plots – you get MORE species diversity than a wilderness area. Yes, you heard right. You get more species of wildflowers, of birds, of small mammals, of butterflies, of everything if you have a patchwork of agricultural uses. It makes sense if you think about it.
ADEPT is already working with Daia on getting their milk to market. Ideally we would love to get a community kitchen set up there, perhaps in this old kindergarten building with great windows?
Speaking of windows….
We have circulated a list of Do’s and Don’ts for Carpathian Village preservation and rehabilitation. I saw several of these signs in many of the towns and it seems they are having a positive effect.
So there was a lot of hand-wringing about an incident last year where Eugen challenged a woman who had put in plastic replacement windows in her Daia house. Heritage conservation gets a bad name by telling people they can’t do stuff, right?
Except guess what. You live with one of these plastic windows for a few months and pretty soon you are going to be longing for your original windows – which were 1. repairable, 2. double-glazed with a much more effective insulation gap between the panes, 3. beautifully designed, and 4. fit the frame better, hence probably allowed LESS air infiltration. SO there we are walking along and this lady comes out to volunteer that she is going to put the old windows BACK because they are better.
You gotta think about the future – plastic windows only last half a generation at best!
This little vignette actually describes the key aspect of 21st century cultural heritage conservation – you need to get in early, before the non-sustainable industries show up, and you need to make the people a part of the process from the very beginning. I have blogged about the community-based approach to heritage conservation explicit in the Burra Charter many times before (see here for a recent example) but this isn’t rhetoric. I’ve seen it in Yunnan, in Guizhou, in the Ukrainian Carpathians and now in the Romanian Carpathians. And I’ve seen it on the South Side of Chicago.
Daia, not the South Side of Chicago
Many of these villages, like Daia, have basically a subsistence economy based on agriculture, supplemented by some residents who travel to nearby countries part of the year for seasonal work in construction and the like. Not dissimilar to the “empty middle” households of Guizhou where working-age adults are often in the coastal cities, leaving the elderly and children behind in the traditional village. This is why we are working with ADEPT in Transylvania and You Cheng in Guizhou – to find new markets and production mechanisms that will make this cultural landscape economically sustainable.
Outside the fortified church in Daia
Our last day we did a horse-drawn carriage ride and hike through the woods above the village of Archita, witnessing bear claw scratches on trees and bumping through fields and rolling forage until the neatest little fairy tale town you can imagine appeared, centered on a steeple, nestled in rustling green folds.
And now a few more views from the Carpathian Villages of Transylvania, a journey outside Time.
Marvelous architectural detail in Altina
View in to the fortified church in Daia
I love this Daia facade – understated Classicism in a mantle of gemütlich Heimatstil
Stone barn, Daia
House and gate, Viscri
Town square and church in Biertan