Centuries of invasions followed by hunger and neglect produced a culture of resilience and resourcefulness in Ibiza. Today, globalisation has made access to materials and ideas easier than ever, but Ibiza’s cultural heritage is still very much alive. There’s no better example of this small island’s ingenuity than in its vernacular architecture. Ibiza was always an island of farmers and smallholdings where families grew their own food, raised animals for work and sustenance, and helped out their neighbours whenever required. Everything was created from the materials they found around them – including their homes.
One of the most distinctive features of the Ibiza farmhouse is the sturdy wood beams cut from native juniper (Sabina) trees. The trees themselves were carefully managed, gently cultivated and coaxed to grow straight and strong. The wood is not only extremely hardwearing, but possesses insect repelling resins. Harvesting took place in the early summer when the sap stopped running when the bark was easily stripped. After drying, either a long or short handled adze, a small hatchet type tool, was used to hand cut the rectangular beams, an impressive undertaking considering the heft of some of the timber. Over time, the wood deepens to a dark rose colour and leaves a gentle scent of its essential oil in the air.
Once beams were in place, a set of narrow wooden slats were placed across them. Often these were made from Sabina wood but olive and almond were also used. The next layer consisted of dried Posidonia seaweed that is washed up in abundance onto Ibiza’s shorelines. The seaweed helped seal the cracks left between the hand-cut slats and also provided a somewhat questionable level of insulation. On top of this, a layer of burnt earth was spread. Taken from the hearths where charcoal was produced, it’s unclear why this layer was considered necessary. Rolph Blakstad recounts asking a farmer the meaning behind the burnt earth in his book, The Houses of Ibiza. The man replied that it was a “fiery principle” that stopped the water coming through. Whether this notion was architectural or connected to long lost folklore has never been established. The final layer was a thick coating of white clay that was dug from the surrounding landscape.
Limewash is another traditional material ubiquitous in the local architecture. It’s still used on occasion today, but more often than not modern paints have replaced the whitewashing effect. The remnants of lime kilns can still be found next to some traditional houses or deep in the countryside near a deposit of limestone. Beautiful in their own right, the kilns were dug into the ground and surrounded by dry stone walls. Lime can be used to produce mortar, plaster, whitewash and was also the main ingredient in the first ever cement. It’s found in abundance across the island and the stone’s unique mineral makeup produces a non-toxic paint wash with antibacterial and fungicidal properties.
Gaps in the stone walls were filled with gravel taken from dry river beds, country paths or roads. Sand was collected from the beaches and left in the rain to slake off residual salt before being mixed with lime and spread in layers on the inner and outer walls. A thicker mixture was used to hand shape mouldings and cornices without the use of moulds. Modern cement does not hold its shape and unfortunately, the art of free-hand decorative motifs has been lost to time. Lower level floors had a mixture of lime and gravel spread over the bare earth, which was left to set before being pounded smooth by a wooden cylinder.
Every element of the construction was sourced from the island, including furnishings and tools. Pine was mostly used for furniture and the sap was processed to produce a waterproof resin for boatbuilding. Occasionally a walk in the forest will reveal an old pine pitch oven, a hole in the ground around three feet deep lined with stones. Esparto grass is native to Spain and North Africa and in Ibiza, this tough yet malleable fibre is still in use today to make the woven patterns of classic Mediterranean chairs, the grass baskets favoured by locals and fashionistas alike, and the delicately threaded traditional shoes called espardenyes – otherwise known as espadrilles.
All of these materials and methods have ancient roots going back millennia, even all the way to ancient Egypt. Despite this long lost heritage, many of these traditions were still in common usage right up until the 1970s. While life is lived at a different pace now, and new technologies have usurped handcrafts, there are still people in Ibiza who practice the old arts. Rolph Blakstad’s book did much to capture the histories and traditions of the architecture and groups of Ibicencos remain dedicated to keeping the arts alive. You can see them throughout events and markets across the island, always ready with a smile to teach you an ancient way of doing something new.