IHBC Yearboox 2018

R E V I E W A N D A N A L Y S I S 43 THE DEVETAKI PROJECT DARREN BARKER S INCE 2014 a small village on a remote plateau in Bulgaria has been at the centre of a remarkable project focused on international collaboration, knowledge-sharing and the relearning of traditional building techniques. The original concept of training and preservation has snowballed, generating a momentum which has drawn in students, conservators, architects, artists and volunteers from across the world, including IHBC members. In the process, the project has helped to tackle skills shortages, unemployment and the erosion of the historic built environment. It has also spawned exhibitions, exchange visits, international partnership working, films, football matches and art projects (see page 45). The Devetaki Plateau is situated in the poorest region of one of the most impoverished countries in the EU. Made up of nine villages in three municipalities, this area suffers from a range of economic and social issues, most pertinently depopulation. This has had a devastating effect, contributing to the deterioration and loss of historic buildings and the decline of the villages as living entities. While 20 years ago there were 900 people living in the village of Karpachevo, today there are fewer than 60. This exodus helps to explain, in part, the erosion of the village’s historic built environment. Most of those who remain are in their eighties and nineties and this steadily ageing population simply does not have the resources to maintain what is left of its rapidly declining built heritage. Karpachevo is not unique in its plight: throughout the Devetaki Plateau visitors find village after village with buildings of breath-taking beauty and simplicity which, little known and largely unrecorded, now face irreversible change and loss. Many of these rare architectural survivals have reached a tipping point of rapid deterioration. Outward migration has led to a decline in the practice of traditional skills, stifling appropriate repair and maintenance. This problem is compounded by a move towards modern building methods and materials, a lack of appreciation of the intrinsic value of the vernacular architecture and an absence of statutory protection. Furthermore, while the loss of traditional building skills is a pan- European problem, here it has been exacerbated by 50 years of communist rule, collectivisation, standardisation and a post-soviet era of nervous autonomy. In short, the longevity of Devetaki’s unique built heritage is under threat due to a lack of both the resources and motivation to invest in preservation. On this plateau the architectural tradition relies only on materials claimed from the local landscape, such as slender timber poles, unfired clay, dry stone walls and limestone slate roofs, and it has remained unchanged for centuries. As well as providing a regional aesthetic, the buildings constitute a narrative which illuminates the political, economic, social and cultural history of the people and communities who constructed and live (or used to live) in these evocative structures. As with the most inspiring vernacular architecture, the structures are based on a fundamental knowledge of materials and craft. Walls are constructed from unhewn stone plinths, which then rise in adobe bricks, either with or without rickety timber frames. Balancing on top of these walls are roofs crafted from oak and acacia, where the natural shape of the unworked timber dictates the form. With their low pitches and hips, the roofs carry enormous loads of stone slates laid without pegs or mortar. It is only the weight of the stones that holds them in place, creating the strange impression that the buildings are being pressed downwards, forced back to the ground. The effect is stunning and the landscape ripples with diamond patterned limestone roofs interspersed with the roman tiles and clay interlockers which were churned out in their millions here in the 1950s. The buildings are simply crafted, without fuss, from a limited but well- explored pallet. The old people left in the village can describe how they Volunteers carry out roof repairs (All photos: Darren Barker)