The past and the future
THE ORIGINS OF THE TRUST
The Mihai Eminescu Trust was formed during Ceaușescu’s dictatorship, to help persecuted dissident academics by smuggling in books and journals so that they could keep abreast with the civilisation they had once shared. Our clandestine contacts took us to strange places. In 1987 I visited the lonely mountain hut of Constantin Noica, a much revered sage who told me the ancient villages around him were facing the imminent threat of “systematisation”—obliteration by bulldozing—to make room for factories and concrete apartment blocks.
A spell had been cast on us. We had discovered a visual record of rural Europe with all its ancient richness and beauty intact. Laid out before us was not just a panorama of evocative architecture and magnificent churches, nor was it reducible to the unique harmony between man and nature or the traditional ways of farming which still survived here. Its secret was that it was the outcome of successful settlement, the visible result of routines maintained over centuries, in which men and women had shaped the earth to themselves and themselves to the earth.
The introduction of the Saxon culture to Hungarian Transylvania dates back to 1153, when King Geza recruited mercenaries from the Mosel and the Rhineland to guard his kingdom’s borders. In exchange he gave them fertile land, their own legal system and permanent rights of settlement and autonomy. Over the following eight centuries, the Saxons built their villages, kept their seclusion, intermarried and retained their own laws, religion, educational system and their arts and crafts. What now, we asked ourselves, would become of this fallen paradise? There must surely be an alternative to decay or cheap modernisation. At first tentatively, later with a growing confidence encouraged by the commitment of long term support by the Packard Humanities Institute—and always hand in hand with the villagers—we began a campaign to revive the local economy through the renewal of its heritage. We saved houses and churches from the dilapidation that had overtaken them since the flight of their Saxon inhabitants; in parallel we turned our attention to the villagers’ means of earning a living. We called this our Whole Village Project - an idea which we developed with the Horizon Foundation.
To give the villagers’ a trade, and to instil pride in their surroundings, we offered training in traditional techniques and the use of authentic materials. Most of them now were Romanians or gypsies, but a few dynamic Saxons remained, one of whom, Caroline Fernolend, became our national director and an inspiration for our hopes and ambitions. To date (2014) we have completed over 1,100 restoration projects, large and small, in 29 villages and towns.
To add professionalism to the task, we brought craftsmen from Germany and Britain to supervise (and themselves imbibe) the ways of villagers steeped in a centuries-old congruity of man, nature and architecture. We brought back to life once-thriving crafts: locksmithery and iron forging, masonry, joinery and metalworking, brick and tile making, painting, stuccowork and carving, linen making and basket weaving.
Jessica Douglas-Home (Founder of The Mihai Eminescu Trust)
THE WHOLE VILLAGE PROJECT
Throughout Transylvania, thousands of historic houses, mills, barns and bridges are falling into ruin or are being defaced by modern development. Whereas some of the larger towns and cities, such as Sibiu and Sighisoara, have received international support, the rural communities have been less cared for. Remote and poor, they are, for the most part, little aware of the value of their heritage – not surprisingly, as the exodus of the Saxons after Ceausescu’s death left them occupied by Romanians and gypsies from very different cultures.
In starting our pioneering Whole Village Project, we offered an alternative approach both to haphazard development and to abandonment. Initially, for visual impact and to stimulate the communities’ pride in the settlements, we worked as if washing a beautiful face - patching and lime-washing the ancient stuccoed facades, uncovering their Latin and German inscriptions, mending windows, shutters, and roofs. But the restoration of a single house or church can leave it out of context, a jewel spoiled by its setting. To retain the full architectural cohesion and harmony of the mediaeval streetscapes would be a transient achievement unless the villagers’ themselves came to “own” the concept. For this their living conditions must be transformed. Their incentive to remain in situ was not naturally grounded in appreciation of historic architecture, but if they saw their heritage as a fragile economic asset – once gone, never retrieved - and if with outside assistance it could be converted into a sustainable source of income, then there would be a future for the rural communities as well as for their ancient surroundings.
The Trust started work in 1999 in five villages 50 miles north of Brasov, centred on the village of Viscri. Our methods of procedure were strict. First we met with local representatives, discussed their ideas for development, assessed structures at risk, identified houses most suitable for restoration, appointed a conservation expert and finally created an inventory of historic buildings. The one proviso was an insistence on sympathetic design and use of traditional materials and the principle of minimum intervention, with patch and repair taking precedence over renewal, and as much as possible being kept of the original fabric. Where new additions or treatments cannot be avoided, they are designed to be removable and we try to ensure that repairs mirror the quality and the spirit of the existing work and its craftsmen.
Our Romanian architect, Gabriel Lambescu, exemplified this philosophy, with his love of the vernacular, his insistence on using local labour and materials and his dedication to the highest restoration standards. Together with Caroline Fernolend, he found sites for lime pits, oversaw their preparation, discovered timber and masonry yards and nurtured village blacksmiths and metalworkers. He was adored by his teams of budding or already accomplished restoration builders. His last project was our first wood-fired kiln, which now operates throughout the season producing hand-made tiles and bricks.
After his sudden death in 2006, we found by sheer good luck another inspiring architect, Jan Huelsemann, who moved to Sighisoara and added an extra dimension with his love of wood. He instilled his own demanding standards through village master classes in the repair of wooden structures - whether the 12th century church tower in Bunesti, the meticulous art of furniture, shutters and window making, or the reconstruction of collapsed ancient barns. His greatest gift to Transylvania was his magnificent restoration of two lovely buildings, the Apafi Manor in Malancrav and the Tower House in Sighisoara, which contributed significantly to the MET winning the First prize for Conservation Europa Nostra Prize in 2007.
Over the years, under the watchful eyes of architects and overseas experts, the Trust has given on-site training to many local craftsmen and helped a wide variety of small rural entrepreneurs to improve their production and marketing. We are active today in 25 villages (and 4 towns), several of which, having heard of our work, sought our advice and set up on their own.
Viscri is the foremost example of a successful Whole Village Project. Under the leadership of Caroline Fernolend, the village has attracted international acclaim for its combination of historic preservation and economic regeneration. It has been estimated that more than half of Viscri’s population has benefited from the Trust’s work. In this village alone we have undertaken 180 restorations, mended cattle troughs, re-cobbled roads, planted trees and provided a school bus. We have built stables for horse trekking and converted buildings into guesthouses. Most ambitious of all, with money-raising help of Prince Charles, who bought one of our restored houses in the village, we have installed an ecological sanitation scheme which today is becoming a model for others to follow.
In 2001 we expanded our reach west of Sighisoara to a further 5 villages around Malancrav, which is evolving towards a similar level of self- sufficiency as Viscri. Here, in addition to an extensive programme of restoration, the Trust acquired and presently manages an ancient 266-acre apple orchard, generating income and employment from the only organic apple juice in Romania. Close beside the orchard stands the romantic Apafi Manor. The Manor is run by two Malancrav villagers who, seven years previously, had emigrated to Germany but, homesick, had come back with their two children.
With Viscri, Malancrav and our recent launch in Alma Vii as examples of what can be achieved, there is no hiding behind bureaucracy or post-communist apathy to put Romania in the “too difficult” pile. The proof is there for all to see. The entry of Romania into the EU, however, has introduced a new threat – that of subsidised uniformity, robbing Transylvania of its uniqueness.
We prefer to look at Romania’s membership of the Union as an opportunity. The award by the European Commission of its premier conservation prize to the MET shows that Europe understands the need for exceptions. The Whole Village Project was evidently seen by the judging panel as a model for the future rather than merely a vehicle for rescuing the past. In that spirit, the EU’s system of aid and derogations for special regions could be just what is wanted to take forward the work we have started.
Romania’s Saxon farming and housing settlements have survived for almost a millennium.
The following is an extract from an article written in 2002 for Open Democracy by Jessica Douglas-Home.
Nikolai Ceausescu, Romania’s vainglorious Conducator, had not only decided to bulldoze the villages, along with thirteen thousand others, as part of his plans for systematisation; he was also getting rid of the Saxons themselves, selling those with exportable skills at a few thousand Deutschmarks a piece to the West German Government. When, after the fall of communism, the German Foreign Minister invited anyone of German origin to return to the fatherland, some two hundred thousand Saxons stampeded out of Transylvania, leaving a scattered and predominantly elderly population to look after this most precious of European landscapes.
Because of the difficulties of travelling in communist Romania it was some time before I was finally able to visit the Siebenburgen. I had expected to find an enclave of German culture: in fact I discovered an image of Europe as it must once have been everywhere – a landscape still disputed between wildlife and people, villages still fortified against marauders, a deep intimacy between farmers and domestic animals, and a religious tranquillity radiating from churches adorned by centuries of pious workmanship.
In the forests of oak and beech roamed wolf, bear and wild boar; in the skies were eagles, owls and storks. The meadows were decked with wild flowers, alive with butterflies and crickets, and encircled by lark-song. Streams ran fresh from the hillsides and gathered into swift, clear rivers in the valleys.
The houses melded with the landscape as though they had grown from it. Built to a format, they stand end-on to the street, and are painted like wildflowers in ochres, greens and blues, with stucco-patterned facades and hipped roofs. Each possesses a cobbled courtyard, a winter and summer kitchen, a vegetable patch and a colossal timber-framed barn enclosing the rear end of the courtyard.
Behind the barns lie larger vegetable plots and orchards, with a row of walnuts at the far end to act as a wind- and fire-break and to provide insect-free shade in summer time. Further off the pasture rises towards the woodland, which in most places still crowns the high ground, the haunt of animals who have disputed this territory with the farmers since Roman times. As in much of medieval Europe, the egalitarian Saxon communities divided their arable land into strips.
The endurance of faith and beauty
Animals are as integral to the household as people: cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, ducks and goats are stabled a few feet from the back door, and when the huge gates are opened in the morning the cows and horses amble on to the central track through the village, there to join other cattle and their herdsman, who take them into the meadows to graze with the sheep.
An atmosphere of settlement hangs over the landscape, and yet everywhere are the little signs that the work of settlement can at any moment be undone. The wild forest above seems to be waiting to reclaim the valleys, and in the heart of each village, next to the Tanzplatz or dancing circle, stands the fortified church, vivid reminder of the Turkish and Tartar invasions that spread havoc through these lands.
Within the church walls, sometimes two or even three deep, are the sleeping areas allotted to each village family. Here they would come, bringing livestock and food, to protect themselves until the storm had passed, thereafter to return to their burned and pillaged homesteads and begin again the daily work of settlement.
These reminders of terror and hardship contrast with the gaiety and naturalness of the church decorations. The pews are painted in delicate flowered patterns; pulpits are capped with crowns and encircled by two-dimensional painted angels. In the sacristy or at the back of the church stands a magnificent organ, and the doors which lead to the priest’s quarters are inlaid in many-coloured woods, with finely wrought locks, keys and hinges.
The beauty of the Saxon villages is not simply a matter of their evocative architecture and magnificent churches; nor is it reducible to the unique harmony between man and nature, or the quaint old ways of farming, or the extraordinary eco-system which still survives here – although all of those are important.
The beauty of this – as perhaps of all landscapes – is that it is the outcome of successful settlement. The Siebenburgen is the visible record of a routine maintained over centuries, in which men and women have found happiness and sorrow in equal measure, but have gone on reproducing nevertheless, and shaped the earth to themselves and themselves to the earth in mutual harmony.
Now that those who made this landscape have fled, what is to become of it, and what attitude should we take towards its future? Should it be placed in an ecological museum, to become the property of some equivalent of the National Trust. Should it be allowed to decay into wilderness? Or should it be rationalised by global agribusiness (little better, to many people’s way of thinking, than being systematised by Ceausescu)?
These questions troubled me greatly, and for two reasons. First, because I had discovered, for the first and perhaps the last time in my life, an intact visual record of the agricultural way of life – by which I mean the way of life which produces food as a culture rather than a business. Encapsulated in these villages and their real but fragile economy is a memory that is precious to all of us, since it is the folk memory of Europe. I did not want that memory to vanish.
Secondly, I recognised that what I felt about the Saxon villages of Romania was merely a heightened and dramatic form of what so many of us feel about the man-made landscapes that provide our visions of rural peace. We all of us remain attached, in some part of ourselves, to a real or imaginary Eden; and, as Hugh Brody points out in his book, The Other Side of Eden, Edens are not merely man-made but made by farming. In other words, they belong to an endangered way of life, and the troubling question arises: what happens to the landscape, when the way of life that made it comes to an end? This is the question that confronted me in the Saxon villages.
Through the Mihai Eminescu Trust, I and a few friends began a campaign to save the Saxon villages. We hoped to revive as best we could the local economy. Working at first to save houses and churches from the accelerating dilapidation that had overtaken them since the flight of so many inhabitants, we soon turned our attention to the revival of agriculture. The State farms and the village cooperatives were bankrupt; the government promised restitution of the land but constantly delayed its implementation; vast tracts lay fallow, and the farm buildings were rapidly decaying.
At first that might have seemed like the end for a farming community. For us, however, it was the beginning. For it was the best possible starting point for organic farming. The farmers could not afford artificial fertiliser or pesticide, and besides the best hope for marketing their product was to take advantage of the new desire for organic products.
While introducing the techniques required by the farmers, we began a scheme to train villagers – most of them now Romanians or gypsies – in the use of traditional building materials, and in the art of conservation. We began to restore the old drinking wells, the cobbled streets, and the wattling that shores up the banks of the streams through the villages. We have encouraged inns and guest houses that might cater for discerning tourists and have built stables for horse-trekking.
All this might seem like so much lacquer on the face of a corpse. But, to our delight, it is encouraging people to stay in the villages, to re-work the land, and to take the same kind of interest in their surroundings as we take, seeing them as the precious imprint of a valid way of life, and a unique interface between man and animal.
The rhythm established by the Saxon villagers has revived, with the daily ritual of milking the cows, followed by their morning drink at the well, their exodus up into the hills and the evening return. Hay-making, crop gathering and storage for the winter once again mark out the seasons. And young people are staying, either to take part in the revived economy, or to add some new enterprise of their own.
© Mihai Eminescu Trust 2002