The notion of fortification rarely makes it into an architectural brief these days, thankfully. It wasn’t so in the 16th century however, when Ibiza’s waters were teeming with pirates, corsairs, and buccaneers. At any given moment the island might have found itself under attack, leaving residents scrambling to hide from the marauders. A complex set of watchtowers operated by the military sent out the alarm but for those too far from the fortified walls of the old town, or the thick bastions of a church, there was little protection. This is why you still see the odd tower as you drive through the interior countryside of the island today.
While pirate attacks seem farfetched these days, back then Redbeard and John Ward (aka Jack Sparrow) and colleagues were all far too real. And they were certainly not known for their comedy. Some of the public towers were built to house up to 200 people and the smaller ones on private farms probably had capacity for between 50 to 100 – standing room only. Stocked with arms, piles of stones to throw at the invaders and other essential supplies, local families would squeeze inside and wait until the coast was clear before returning to their homes.
The biggest of all pirate attacks occurred on October 12, 1543, when Redbeard’s second in command directed 23 galley ships into the Santa Eulalia river. The pirates attacked Santa Eulalia town and made it all the way to Balàfia, Atzaró and Arabí. It is believed that the crew arrived in Formentera 13 days later, depositing more than a thousand pirates onto the small island. Naturally, pirates loved gold, salt and anything else that could be bought and sold – including people. It was not uncommon for hostages to be held to ransom, so building a fortified tower on your land was a prudent move.
There’s little information about how the construction of these seemingly private towers was funded but it’s not a far reach to believe they were a collective project set up and maintained by neighbours, making them the very first Neighbourhood Watch organisation. Historian and architect Juanjo Serra believes the military must have provided some kind of help and by his estimation, there were up to 69 known rural towers and countless other structures used for refuge in Ibiza. Many of them were located near Ses Salines, indicating the agricultural importance of the area in addition to the mounds of white gold produced by the salt flats.
All the towers in Ibiza follow the same design – cylindrical, with thick walls and two floors. Made with limestone and mares stone, the towers were built without foundations, relying solely on the thickness of the walls for stability. Now classified as Assets of Cultural Interest, there is hope that one day, they will be restored to become part of the island’s legacy.
Apart from the towers, Serra believes private homes consisted of other defensive elements. Parapets, machicolations and embrasures (openings in walls that allowed for the pouring of boiling water onto attackers) would have been common in residential homes. Once the threat of piracy subsided, many of these architectural elements were consumed back into the structure, hidden in plain sight. Most of Ibiza’s remaining private towers are in various states of disrepair but a precious few have found a new lease on life.
Blakstad Design Consultants have resurrected a handful of them while restoring old fincas. The circular shape provides a challenging canvas for interior design but at the same time creates a point of difference. Some may see them as quirky while others find them, as we do, infused with ancient stories of the families that once used them for protection. The organic roundness of the resulting room is pleasing to the eye. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why, but these curvaceous spaces leave you feeling ensconced in goodness. Visitors always delight in their unusual shapes and kids seem to gravitate towards them. Perhaps the vestiges of pirates ignite their imaginations.
The owners of Can Sol de Mencia transformed their tower into a unique dining room, where curved pendant lights and modernised bentwood chairs repeat the circular pattern made by the walls and arched windows. At Villa Harko, the concept of the tower was incorporated into a sleek contemporary design. The curve of the tower juxtaposed against the cubic shapes of the rest of the house appears like a postmodern take on children’s building blocks. Other villas have kept their towers unrendered, the russet tones of hand-cut stones rising into the sky. Some have been converted into bathrooms or guest quarters and others have been left to crumble, an ancient ruin full of mystery and mythology.
With a bit of creativity, these spaces can become architectural highlights, something truly different. Those with bolder ambitions might think about building one from scratch as an homage to the bravery of our ancestors who faced off countless attacks and won. While Redbeard doesn’t show up anymore, the Ibicenco audacity is still going strong.