Obsession is the driving force of art. Without it, the artist wouldn’t get out of bed. While it’s taken a multitude of factors to create Blakstad Design Consultants, it was a singular obsession that got it started. When the original founder of the firm, Rolph Blakstad, arrived in Ibiza as a wide-eyed youth with his young bride on his arm, he was instantly obsessed. It took a matter of moments for him to notice the pearly beauty of the houses inching their way up the hills of the old town and the light as it cast deep shadows on the ancient sandstone bastions. The seemingly haphazard puzzle of white cubic homes and the sloping cobbled streets enchanted the young yet-to-be designer.
This beautiful and hopeful young couple were on their way to Mallorca, but Ibiza entrapped them in the haze of her magic. It was here they settled and began their family, and it was here that Rolph started to make connections between the culture, architecture and traditions of the island with those of the middle east. As a restorer working for British museums, a documentary filmmaker and self-directed scholar, Rolph had already had a lot of contact with the history of the Levant before his arrival in Ibiza. The more he immersed himself and his family in island life, he began to form ideas about the historical significance of the local architecture. His forays into the island’s ruins, old farmhouses and the homes of his neighbours sparked an emerging theory.
The history of Spain is written in bricks and mortar. The march of time and the glories and downfalls of civilisations are seen in Roman bridges, roads and aqueducts; Moorish palaces, bathhouses, and gardens; the Catholic Kings’ cathedrals, chapels, castles and monasteries. But here in Ibiza, Rolph saw very little evidence of Roman or Moorish architecture. Sure, there were the forbidding walls of the old town built by the Moors, the Roman statues on either side of the drawbridge and some evidence of Moorish irrigation but overall, the homes in which the locals lived appeared to be unique in Spain. Rolph had seen similar shapes elsewhere – Turkey, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Palestine and Syria. He realised the architecture of Ibiza was much older than the Romans and Moors. It was an inheritance that has long disappeared from other parts of the Mediterranean but that still held strong on this island so often forgotten, neglected or ravaged by myriad invaders. Ibiza and its builders – farmers, all of them – still built their homes, wells and churches using the methods and styles left behind by the Phoenicians.
Once Rolph made this connection, he began the long journey of proving his theory. With his children in tow, a notebook, pencil, camera and tape measure, he visited countless ruins, interviewed farmers and collected endless reams of information. Slowly, over time – in between travels for work and family commitments – he collated his grand theory into a book: La Casa Evissenca, claus d’una tradició mil.lenària or in English: The Ibizan House, the key to a millennial tradition. Its pages contain painstakingly researched evidence, reflecting the deeply rich architectural and cultural traditions of an Ibiza which was rapidly disappearing into the clutches of mass tourism and modern economics.
He frequently called the Ibicencos the people of Canaan, for he was convinced that much of their culture was derived from that region. Over the years, his theory has become accepted. In the book, he compares not only architectural styles but also traditional clothing, jewellery, weaving, spiritual motifs and murals with those found on archaeological sites across the Levant. The survival of these ancient styles and techniques in Ibiza are thanks to the indifference directed to the native inhabitants by each subsequent invading force. Ibiza was desired as a strategic military base, a stop-off for trade and as a source of precious salt for a time. The new aristocracy that arrived after each invasion holed up in the old town and paid little attention to the lives of the peasants who quietly continued in their way, passing ancient knowledge from generation to generation.
With the onslaught of mass tourism that started in the late 1950s, these traditions were beginning to erode. There was money to be made on an island that had merely subsisted for so many centuries. Families facing the choice of maintaining their ancestral lands or taking much-needed money found themselves in a difficult situation. Thanks to Rolph’s insatiable curiosity, his respect and admiration for local custom and his deep friendships with islanders, this important history was documented. In a time where money was king and progress was doctrine, Rolph knew the preservation of what little was left was critical to the island’s narrative and that its loss would be a tragedy. His legacy is seen in the works still carried out by the design firm he founded, and in the pride the local people hold for their traditions, their homes and their way of life.
Sadly, Rolph passed away before the book was finally published in Catalan in 2013. It remains the most complete study of the traditional architecture and design of Ibiza and an important addition to the history of Mediterranean settlement and development. Now, eight long years later Blakstad Design Consultants are honoured to publish the very first English translation. Finally, the English-speaking world can delve into the fascinating history of Ibiza as told through its architecture, design and customs in this beautiful book. And if you are an astute reader you will find, between the lines, the story of a man and his obsessions – one that will also not be forgotten.