In central Spain, every stone whispers resilience. "[T]here is not a single building that is good if it does not have stone." Explore the vanishing craft of dry-stone construction, celebrating enduring structures and preserving traditional architecture—one stone at a time.
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Stone! For me, there is not a single building that is good if it does not have stone. There are a lot of types of stone, huh? But granite, a good building made of good granite, for me, that’s better than everything else.
—Felipe Moreno, stonemason from Hoyo de Manzanares
While preservation of traditional knowledge is usually captured through ethnographic documentation, festivals, and so on, it is rare to find proper evaluation of verbal knowledge regarding built traditions. We tend to overlook the living knowledge that the builders inherit and maintain, as if the physical artifact alone would be enough to manifest the knowledge.
One tradition is dry stone construction—assembling uncut, mortarless rocks into sturdy structures. This ancient art dots diverse landscapes, each stone type imparting unique forms. From rustic walls to stately manors, these techniques shape the land's character. Thus, restoring them is vital for preservation. Mortar absence also permits stone reuse and plant and animal habitation, enriching biodiversity.
In this essay, we share the method and results of an intensive study of Hoyo de Manzanares, a central Spanish town where the traditional way of building has been declining since 1987.
The town is located in a small mountain range that is part of the Guadarrama mountains, about 40 kilometers away from Madrid. Until the 1970s, inhabitants mainly grew barley and raised cattle. They also built many dry-stone structures for their daily lives.
Our study is first conducted through interviews of local quarry men and masons (who are over 80 years old on average). We then cross-referenced the interviews with documentation from the Municipal Archives, where we found building plans from the past.
We located the main quarries from the past centuries through the interviews. Some of these quarries provided stones for significant buildings in Madrid in the previous century. These stones are still in demand today, as the same quarry is being used to restore the buildings on the Acropolis in Athens. Therefore, if any of those buildings in Madrid require restoration, we would know exactly where to get the matching stones.
A mason, who had learned to cut stones at fourteen, revealed to us the division of the crew into two chiefs and three sorts of masons, according to whether they split, shaped, or built with the stones. He recalled how they used wooden wedges from juniper trees to cleave the stones. They would dry the wedges by fire and then wet them in the stones, so that they would swell and break the stones apart. Later, they replaced the wooden wedges with iron ones.
What struck us most was the contrast between the proximity of the town to the capital and the rudimentary method they employed to lift the stones to the scaffolding. Two men would hold a ladder-like device and haul up the stones, in a manner similar to how they carried sick people in hammocks in old times. This was vastly different from other places in Spain where they used a simple pulley system to hoist the stones, even though they had the same kind of stone.
The stone, once extracted and roughly shaped, served for various purposes: walls to enclose, cages to protect wells from cattle, or houses to dwell. It is curious to observe how the declining of the technique leads to improper repairs of the walls, exposing them to further damage.
In 2005, a modest catalogue resulted from a town-hall meeting, tracing intriguing stone houses, though oblivious to the difference between dry-stone elements and mortar elements. Nor did it capture the beehive enclosures which so captivate the roving eye across this landscape. Devoid of protections for the catalogued, many of which have vanished since its making: once 243, now but 200 stand. In less than two decades, nearly a quarter has been lost.
The oldest structures - homes and expansive granaries - have endured the most change. The designs rarely accommodate contemporary constructions. The following images portray a grand 18th century estate of dwellings and granaries, shown in its intact 2005 state and current condition.
Alarmed by this loss, we sought to document the surviving structures and record the memories of those who knew the vanished ones. Their recollections help preserve traces of what would otherwise be fully forgotten.
The masons first delineated the common traits of a "type" dwelling, contrasting the pre- and post-war eras. The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) seems to have marked a pivotal shift in construction techniques.
The old "type" dwellings centered around one large chamber, with bedrooms and kitchens clustered about lacking windows. Their placement disregarded the facing of sunlight, unlike most traditional homes. But the town's southern slope ensured ample sun exposure regardless of orientation. The layout acts as a cave maintaining temperature through limited air flow.
The house walls comprised two dry stone layers, with mud sealing the outer stone joints. This created an air chamber within for insulation. Uncut juniper trunks formed the roof frame, topped with bushy twigs and clay tiles.
Juniper resisted rot, but limited spans to under 3 meters between walls. Homes as a result rarely exceeded one floor. Some had false reed roofs for light storage. Chimneys loomed pyramidal over floor fires, venting smoke yet admitting rain. Masons recalled oil pots bursting under angled rain invading via three-tile tops. Dirt floors reigned, of course.
Postwar homes featured central brick walls, with rooms distributed off a corridor. More windows opened up. Open hearths gave way to modern (French) chimneys.
Archival plans and masons' recollections allowed us to recreate select home layouts. One example, pictured earlier, was a now-razed 18th century complex traceable on 1860 town maps.
This complex contains three different houses, two with an attached granary. Their extensive spans compelled clever insertion of shortened beams within the walls, expedited by abundant lengthy timber still gracing the surrounding lands in those elder days. While tailored to the terrain, twin dwellings rightwards evoked the old-style construction (henceforth type 1), their neighbor leftwards a more modern breed (type 2), though devoid of any central brick spine. With two now vanished, these lone plans may constitute our sole glimpse within, back to their once lively days.
Of the second structure's conception we cannot be certain, yet it stood stalwart already in 1860, as evidenced in documents of the era. Its site hints elderly provenance.
The exemplary structure above exquisitely matched type 1 constructions, with the curious addition of a mud oven jutting forth from its façade. Its advantageous placement allowed hay to be hoisted from cart to loft, and cattle led through the grounds without trampling the home. Remarkably, testimony indicates this prominent oven lay dormant for generations, unused since the 1800s. This was the birthplace of one distinguished mason—the swaddled babe centered in the photograph. Its bright whitewashed exterior dates from a 1940s campaign to disinfect homesteads, a fleeting trend neither preceding nor succeeding it. Sadly razed in the 1970s.
The final, more contemporary compound understandably lacks presence on earlier maps:
These dwellings featured a welcoming courtyard, with pig and poultry structures set apart to avoid disturbing the residents. The central home exemplified type 1, while its rightward neighbor emulated a modified type 2 design, with connecting corridor. The scarcity of windows allowed the design to be independent of the orientation of the sunlight path. Thus, it permitted flexibility to nestle into the grounds as most conducive, sparing masonry and opening the courtyard to the street.
This compound also demonstrated how dry-stone masonry compelled gradual additions, even doubling walls to avoid undermining stability. With stones' fragile balance relying solely on pressure, any disturbance risked total collapse.
Profound gratitude goes to the masons Felipe Moreno, José González and Eulogio Sanz for their generous wisdom, contacted through the local heritage group Asociación Cultural El Ponderal.
Might this account kindle the realization that one need not be a professional or endowed with funds to unveil meaning from the past. Passion and persistence alone can unearth forgotten quarries, unknown dwelling forms, and urgent needs to preserve what little remains. Most importantly, it can spark kindred spirits to celebrate regional traditions before they fade from living memory. By sharing this modest documentation, may it encourage even one reader to shine light on their own locale's treasures.
Text by Martí Guitera, Lucas
Proofread by 章丹晨 = Zhang, Danchen
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