Lessons from Valderredible: how change your approach to local traditions in two weeks

by Blanca Medina Sánchez

Guatemala, Peru, Honduras, México, Colombia, India, United States, Cuba, Syria, Slovakia, Poland, Italy, UK, Portugal and Spain where the countries represented by the participants, students or practitioners, from different architecture and construction fields in the Rafael Manzano’s Traditional Architecture Summer School 2019. This event is organized by INTBAU Spain, the Rafael Manzano Prize and the Botín Foundation; with the contribution of the Richard H. Driehaus Charitable Lead Trust, among others.

I’m a recent graduate Spanish architect. I decided to apply to this program because I wanted to share this experience with people who are concerned with maintaining local architecture and traditions, and to create new architecture without disrespecting the surroundings, the culture and the neighbors who were there long before the arrival of new buildings.

After culminating the program, I feel that, despite my best efforts to respect tradition and patrimony, my intentions were not entirely fulfilled in my projects. Because this experience was more complete than I thought, I now feel more confident to fully archive it. After six years in college, you might have learnt a lot, but you can always discover new ways to approach to architecture.

MEETING THE PARTICIPANTS AND STAFF MEMBERS

Around 35 participants joined in for the 2019 edition of the summer school in Valderredible. Our adventure started in Madrid. We met on the morning of July 8th.

I was reading in other people’s posts that they planned very long in advance, but as Madrid is just a 4-hour trip by train from my city, I confess I bought a train ticket a few days in advance. I just packed the day before. My drawing tools and papers are the only thing I collected in advance.

As we arrived to our meeting point we introduced ourselves. In the way to Cantabria we stopped by Burgos to visit its outstanding cathedral. Right after having lunch we continued our journey. Despite traveling by bus, we got to Polientes along a winding road not to miss the breathtaking landscape of La Lora moorland.

Soon, I was glad to note the summer school was planned to build close relationships between participants, staff and lecturers. I think this is great. It didn’t matter if you are a practitioner already or a freshman student, shy or talkative; you can easily fit in the group.

They already know, but I want to set down here that they do a great job with this activity and to thank all staff and participants for the two weeks we spent together. 

GETTING TO KNOW THE VALLEY

Valderredible is a municipality in the very South of the autonomous community of Cantabria, in northern Spain. Located next to the Ebro river, Polientes is the most populated town and the capital of the municipality. This was where we stayed during our summer school.

We were warmly welcomed by the mayor and other administration staff. They were grateful to organizers to have chosen Valderredible for this year’s summer school. They love their homeland and were eager for any activity that would promote or improve it respectfully. I think everybody felt very comfortable as we noticed that locals were pleased to see us there, although we might have disturbed the peacefulness of the town by probably doubling its population for two weeks.

We spent our first week traveling Valderredible. To become familiar with the architecture of the valley, its history, traditions and people, we visited different towns and patrimony from the area. Our assignments included to draw different aspects of the town in order to analyze the urbanism and architecture: plans, details, perspectives, elevations and section elevations of the streets. Later on, we put them together and had discussions on the site analysis. During our visits we were lucky to be accompanied by the charismatic Julián Berzosa, who also guided us through his amazing, well supplied museum. Some of the places scheduled were Loma Somera, San Andrés de Valdelomar, Orbaneja del Castillo, San Martín de Elines monastery, Ruerrero and Santillana del Mar (not in Valderredible, but an astonish example conservation of Cantabria’s architecture).

In the afternoons, in order to know the context of Valderredible’s architecture, we attended lessons about history, agriculture, geography, construction and traditions of the valley and neighboring areas.

It is worthwhile to keep record of my trip in drawings. Photos are really easy and quick to do. But for drawing you always need to stop and think, look into detail, so you don’t stop learning.

Polientes 2050

During the second week, lectures and work changed. Our afternoon lessons turned into examples of contemporary traditional architecture projects by their architects, and lectures about working methodology and new concepts on restoration by practitioners and professors. We also enjoyed a visit of a master carpenter, who showed all tolls needed in his job and challenged us with a carpentry task to do at home.

We learned that fixing an ancient building with the best and most expensive modern materials is not the way to do it. It could doom it to a faster deterioration (due to mechanical and chemical incompatibilities).

Having studied and drew the architecture of the valley during the previous week, we were able to make a proposal of how Polientes could be in 2050. We split up into groups to draw proposals about different parts of the town, based on the guidelines suggested by the mayor and on local typologies.

Depopulation of rural areas is a current issue in Spanish politics. One of the goals of the summer school is to provide evidence that tradition is a good way to fight it. Traditional jobs will be still needed, craftsmanship could be still a source of income and won’t be lost, and it will also attract rural tourism, which is a growing trend. Despite the loss of population in rural areas, Polientes will have a few more kids in school next year. So they are doing it right, and we planned a model so Polientes can grow and handle more population without disrupting its special allure.

The town was divided into nine parts and each assigned to a group. Each part was focused in a different topic: improvement of public spaces, integration of new building not working properly within the town, approach to the town from both sides, connection with a new modern condominium built in the outskirts, improving the recreation area by the river and providing Polientes of social housing.

During the last day of the summer school every piece of work was gathered and exposed in a public exhibition in the city hall. It was really rewarding to see people from Polientes and from other towns in the valley look carefully to our drawings and plans. The results of these two weeks will be published. We can only hope our proposals will be taken into account.

Final Reflections

A few days ago I was watching a television program about architecture on a documentary channel. A luxury modern style house was built in a traditional suburb in the Netherlands. The presenter, even though he admitted it was built against the objections of the neighbors, was praising it as brave because it breaks completely with the surrounding houses. In no way is this brave, but it is terrible for the landscape and for the people that will have to see it from then on.

Architecture that disrupt local architectural heritage not only is detrimental to inherited crafts or the beauty of our towns and landscapes, but also doesn’t draw on the nearby resources and do not promote employment among the people from the area. Besides, returning to traditional construction is an answer to depopulation, climate change, and the losing of immaterial heritage.

Just listing a building, a space or a landscape as protected is not enough. There are examples of supposedly protected places that were badly altered. It is technicians’ responsibility not to liaise with it, to let aside our personal aims and understand that not everything goes.

Yet, I want to point that it’s not only practitioners’ duty, but also the responsibility of the administration. It is thought that just by building a singular construction or place by a famous architect will “put their city on the map”. Nothing could be further from the truth; it is usually bound to useless—sometimes unfinished—facilities and debts. To copy what worked in another place doesn’t mean that it will automatically work in ours. It’s true that integrating architecture sometimes goes unnoticed in contrast to contemporary architecture, but this is what this is really about.

To conclude, I would like to make a statement. It is not the case of Valderredible but in my opinion, as I said my motivation letter for the application, some people want to deliberately turn their backs to their legacy and strangely disregard their own patrimony, and I mentioned an example close to me. The contemporaneous architect profession has brought us more than cutting-edge materials, pure white surfaces, and long span beams. It has also provided us with easy information exchange, technology to find out the composition of old materials, where they came from and to study constructions with non-invasive techniques, as well as more responsiveness to our patrimony. Impressiveness can be archived without disrupting the surroundings. Let’s then stop thinking that “old” means lame and obsolete, and feel proud of keeping the traditional image of our houses and towns.

“Architecture is like rowing, to progress you need to look back”

Translation of a quote mentioned in Estefanía Fernández-Cid and Xavier Espinós’ lecture The study of the building invariants as a basis of the design process.