Building Materials

For years I’ve been fascinated by the different building materials used in the historic places I’ve visited.  It makes sense that the villages and towns would have been made of the most convenient materials laying around.  If you’ve got a forest handy, you’ll have log cabins; if you’ve got rocks littering the field you want to plant, why not pile those stones into shelter; if you’ve got clay-based soil, bricks would be your material of choice.

My interest was originally peaked on my first bike trip to Europe many years ago.  It was in the Cotswolds — not too far from London, and known for its warm, golden indigenous stone.  EVERYTHING was made out of Cotswold stone.  I have no idea what the rules are today, but back then, I believe you had to use Cotswold stone, even if you were only building a doghouse.  So the overall effect is seriously harmonious.

The great thing about bike trips is that you see a smallish area very well.  So I started noticing that the stone got darker as we made our way from south to north.  Our last hotel was in the definitely darker-golden town of Chipping Campden, and on a free day a couple of us decided to bike further north to Stratford-upon-Avon.  There was no sign designating an official border, but suddenly EVERYTHING was red brick.  It was almost an assault to the eyes after having spent so many miles surrounded by warm gold.

Since that trip, I’ve tried to be more aware of the differences in buildings.  And Italy has some prime examples….starting with my beloved Orvieto.  It’s made of the same tufa rock that the town sits on, so when you look at it from afar, as in the masthead photo above, the buildings seem to rise out of the soil.  Here’s a photo of Lou’s town of Pitigliano — 32 miles away:

Lou's Pitigliano

Lou’s Pitigliano

I have always thought that it looked like Orvieto’s little cousin – first because of the building material and how the houses grow from the base, and then the fact that for hilltop towns, they’re both pretty flat. Since Orvieto is in Umbria, however, Lou constantly tries to pooh-pooh this comparison between my town and his little “Tuscan jewel”, as he thinks of it.

Other nearby examples:

About 25 miles from Pitigliano is Saturnia, with its decidedly gray stone.

Saturnia walls

House fronts in Saturnia

Todi is only 23 miles from Orvieto, but look at their pale golden stone versus our darker golden tufa:

Cindy and I in Todi

Cindy and I in Todi

You can see Assisi from Perugia, 15 miles away, but Perugia’s stone looks just like Todi’s, while Assisi’s is a warm pinkish gray/tan that is by far the prettiest in the neighborhood….or maybe any neighborhood for that matter.

Basilica di Santa Chiara, Assisi

Basilica di Santa Chiara, Assisi

Getting out of my immediate area – towns at the base of Mt. Etna in Sicily have more than their fair share of volcanic rock.  Here’s a church in Randazzo utilizing it.  Frankly, I’m not a fan of a building that dark, but I do see the practicality in using what’s readily available.

Randazzo, Sicily

Randazzo, Sicily

And finally – a story to demonstrate the difference in mentality between what Europeans expect of their buildings versus how we look at ours today:

I was in the Loire Valley region of France, visiting the Abbey de Fontevraud – notable for having the tombs for Eleanor of Aquitaine and her second husband, who – surprisingly — ended up being King Henry II of England (ah…..those were the days……).  A young guide was showing us around, and when we commented on the beauty of the abbey, he said how distressing it was that it had been built of stone that required a good bit of upkeep.  He made it sound like the original builders had used a water-soluble mortar that needed to be redone every year.  But here are the facts:  the building you see below is the abbey kitchen, which was completed in 1160.  Now I’m sure there have been numerous repairs done over the last 854 years, but nevertheless – it has been 854 years!!!

Kitchen of Abbaye de Fontevraud, France

Kitchen of Abbaye de Fontevraud, France

I wonder what people will say of our buildings when they visit them in 2868.


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