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Special Issue: Svaneti Towers

თარიღი:

13/03/2012


Special Issue: Svaneti Towers

As a tribute to the Region of Svaneti, and thanks to the Author and Publisher’s kind concessions, we propose an article written by the Italian architect Vincenzo Pavan, “Svaneti Towers, Fortified Stone Villages in the Caucasus”. The article has been published in the volume “Glocal Stone” by “VeronaFiere – 46th Marmomacc Fair”, a prestigious Fair for operators in the marble sector which took place in Verona, Italy, from 21st to 24th September 2011.
 
On the occasion of the 46th Marmomacc Fair, the Svaneti Towers received the “Vernacular Architecture” award in the context of 2011 Edition of the International Award “Architecture in Stone”. Since it was created in 1987 such an Award has served as a fundamental reference in the world of architecture and design in search of new directions and experiences in the use of stone materials.
 
Upper Svaneti, lying against the majestic peaks of the Great Caucasus, is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1966.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Fortified stone villages in the Caucasus

Vincenzo Pavan

 

“Systematic and patient study of rural landscape and of the architecture that is a part of it, far from being a nostalgic gesture, is rather a necessary step to interpret the present because it lets us understand, from a global standpoint, the configuration of a territory and it makes us able to confront design with imagination and rigor” (1)


Carlos Martí Arís

 

 

 

A first glance at images of villages in Upper Svaneti, a remote region in the Caucasus chain in Georgia, leads to a curious analogy with Italian medieval landscapes.
Groups of turreted stone towers, scattered or grouped together in compact settlements along the slopes of high valleys, similar to an Alpine environment, create a surreal contrast, a visual spatial-temporal displacement, almost a pictorial “caprice” that inevitably evokes the well known towered profiles of the small 13th century city-states and fortified villages that populated central and northern Italy.
This is undoubtedly due to surprising architectural similarities with the tall and slender city tower-houses or castle towers that populated, at that time, not only the cities and lands of Italy but also those of many other European countries.
This sensation of disorientation is increased by another aspect that emerges immediately after the first impact:  the defensive settlements of Svaneti, unlike all the fortified systems shown to us by European medieval iconography, do not have city walls.
It is as if the clearly defensive role of these buildings were exclusively assigned to the individual protection of their owners, without the existence of a solid organization which physically organized a form of common defenses.
European visitors to these isolated valleys: Alpinists, naturalists, geologists, surveyors and explorers, all had these impressions long before they were seen by architects.
At the end of the Nineteenth Century Vittorio Sella, a famous Italian Alpinist and photographer, documented the architectural characteristics of svan villages during three Alpine excursions in the Caucasus.  His photos, primarily concentrated on the glaciers and the peaks of the Caucasus mountain chain, are an extraordinary document that shows the historic, architectural and anthropological heritage of that region.
Further documentation comes during the nineteen tens and twenties when we have photographic surveys by the Russian Dmitri Ermakov and the American glaciologist William O. Field.
The Svaneti towers entered into the world of cinema during the 1930s thanks to a movie by the Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov “The Salt of Svaneti”, an epic Soviet documentary on the lives of the peoples of the Caucasus.
It was only in the nineteen sixties that this exceptional example of vernacular architecture comes to the awareness of architects, thanks to “Architecture without architects” a book and exhibition by  Bernard Rudofsky  that gives these structures thorough photographic documentation.
Georgia began systematic study and classification of the vernacular architecture of the Svaneti region in the nineteen twenties and increased its efforts after the nineteen sixties.  This preceded the inclusion of these sites, in 1966, in the Unesco World Heritage List.

 

 

 

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Mikhail Kalatozov, The salt for Svaneti, 1930, photos taken from the film

 

Interpretative thoughts

It is precisely the clarity and strength of the forms that emerge from the settlements, the towers, that makes it difficult to interpret the origins and the functions of the complex residential system.  These defensive structures are dated back in the Middle Ages, a period between the 11th and the 13th centuries of the history of Georgia that alternates invasions from foreign powers with stable forms of government such as those of the Baqrat dynasty during the reign of David and of legendary queen Tamar.
The isolation of the Upper Svaneti region exposed the villages in the valleys to brigandage from other areas of the Caucasus and even from rival clans in the same region.
The absence of city walls in the settlements also identifies the towers as instruments of defense adopted by family clans in struggles often inside their own communities, configuring them as specialized architectural structures, distinct from residences although tightly connected to them.
The towers, in fact, while they are the most exuberant element, were only part of the residential system.  The almost indistinct magma of severe and hermitic volumes, deprived of openings, over which they tower, conceals more complex and vital organisms that form the real stuff of the settlements.  Each tower is bonded, with what appears to be a secondary addition, with the machubi, the stables and residences that were the real vital core of the family nucleus.  This residential unit was completed by a low boundary wall that enclosed an adjoining courtyard with a few secondary and accessory structures.
These self-sufficient complexes, similar to “fortified mountain farms, are the building blocks which aggregate to compose the villages in the Svaneti highlands.  They represent, together with a third composite type, fortified residences, one of the most original examples of vernacular architecture in stone: a singular variation that Nature and culture have imposed on the primitive architectural repertoire of these mountain populations.
This reference to fortified farms in the south of Italy, although it can help to understand and define the characteristics of the svan architectural structures, is limiting because while on the one hand it indicates a general similarity between functional systems (residence, work, defense), on the other hand the Italian structures differ from the turreted Svaneti villages in the way these functions combine in the building type.
Apulian farms, for example, have two distinct parts: a dominating vertical structure, typologically comparable to the tower even though it is morphologically shorter and stouter, which functions as residence and lookout, and a boundary system composed of walls and farming buildings, stables, haylofts and storage structures which also function as defenses and delimit their pertinent residential spaces. These components aggregate in a great variety of combinations, making the farms open structures, able to change with time.
The other type with which svan towers can be compared is the architecture of castles.  The Medieval Castle, developed throughout all of Europe as a turreted enclosure equipped to defend the residences of feudal lords and to control the surrounding territory, is a device that organically integrates defensive and residential functions, where towers and walls merge to defend the enclosure and the residence it contains.
The case in svan is different because the towers are a “separate body” from the residence, meaning they are an instrument for defense of the inhabitants but not of the building nor of adjacent spaces.

 

Complex types

Typological-architectural decomposition of the fortified residential complexes helps us to better understand their character as it relates with the “life style” of the local populations and as they adapted to changes taking place over the centuries.
The tower, the least enigmatic but most identifying part of the vernacular architecture , from the formal standpoint can be associated with other common defense models and techniques that were widespread in many European areas during the Middle Ages.  In svan villages the towers come in two versions:  one is a bare version, lacking parts which project outwards from its summit; the other is a more elaborate version furnished with a projecting gallery supported by small corbelled arches.  The entasis in the profile of the towers, the structural narrowing of the form, was the result of both the building technique and the characteristics of the stone materials  being employed.  The different “tower top” solutions, corresponding in the one case to a crown with machicolations that import developments in defensive techniques, would seem to indicate differences in the epochs when the two types were built.
The interior is formed of square or rectangular rooms in a vertical arrangement of four or five stories, communicating with each other through small ceiling openings, with the exception of the first two stories where the defensive structure of the tower eliminated any internal connection, replaced by an external opening that could be reached by a retracting ladder.
The real defense function resided in the room at the top, furnished with machicolations, small shielded openings, where defenders could throw stones down on eventual assailants.  Most of these top rooms are covered with a wooden roof structure clad with stone slabs which make them similar to a small hanging house. In other cases they take the form of uncovered terraces.
But the tower was also used for other functions, in addition to mere defense:  general materials storage on the ground floor during certain periods of the year and as grain store and warehouse on the upper floors.
These structures have another unusual structural feature that regards the horizontal structures that separate the various rooms. The svan towers, rather than the usual barrel vault on the ground floor that often separates the ground floor from upper levels in tower buildings and that helps statically consolidate the base of tall buildings, use “dummy vaults”: masonry floor structures with two inclined pitches that act to discharge forces onto side walls as do normal arches and vaults.   Sometimes we find these “dummy vaults” even on other levels of the tower, alternating with wooden floors. The fact that these towering structures still exist, after many centuries, shows that in addition to their habitual functions as signal and lookout towers they also had occasional defensive functions, at intervals throughout history, together with a role as the landmark of the family clan similar to the case in European medieval cities.
Contrary to the towers which, with their peremptory verticality, visually dominate the environment, the machubi seem to seek mimesis with the landscape, as compact rock bodies, similar to large blocks detached from the mountain. These structures are the building blocks of svan settlements, the seats of the family groups that combine in an unusual mixture of house, stables and hayloft/storage rooms.
Machubi, with their powerful lithic cubic shells, made impenetrable due to the almost total absence of openings, house men and animals in a single context.
The building, with an often irregular square base, consists of two large rooms, one on top of the other.  On the ground floor, the machubi contains the winter residence, shared with the animals and exploiting their warmth for the family to survive through the rigid Caucasus winters at altitudes ranging from 1800 to 2200 meters.  The center of the room contains the fireplace, without a chimney.  The room itself is clad on three or four sides by perforated wooden walls covering a multi-level system.  The first two levels, organized as stables that open through a series of small arches onto the large central space, housed the animals – cattle on the ground floor and sheep and goats on the first floor – while the family lodgings were on the top level.  The family itself met around the fire in the central area for dining and for small winter tasks.
Long periods of isolation from larger towns further down in the valleys and primitive techniques for survival did not exclude admirable esthetic creations such as the woodwork and furniture carved with rich decorations in the machubi or the elegant ceremonial costumes of the more well-to-do families.
The upper level of the building, on top of the machubi, is also formed of a single large room, the darbazi, which during the winter functioned as hayloft-storage room for human and animal foodstuffs.  During the summer, when this space was empty, the family moved into it as though it were a second home, also equipped with a fireplace without a chimney.  In the Fall, when it was again filled with hay, the family went back down to live in the machubi.
This part of the building, which appears to be so bare and laconic, also conceals original structural solutions such as those that compose the structure which supports the roof. This is the case of several machubi in Chazhashi, a small and still intact settlement in the zone of Ushguli at an altitude of 2200 meters, where the gable roof, given the large size of the building, requires a special support that replaces the truss, necessary to half the number of support points for the primary beams.
This consists of a system of horizontal beams stacked one above another and scaled in length in order to create a triangular wooden wall that follows the slope of the two pitches of the roof.
These “resting beams”, as they are called, are in their turns supported by a wooden pillar in the middle of the room, creating an area that is totally free of other masonry support structures.
This solution offers a more efficient support for the truss of an extremely heavy roof, covered with slabs of stone and carrying deep snowfalls during the winter. It is also a solution that perhaps conceals a hidden symbolic meaning.
A third type that combines the specific functions and characteristics of the tower and the machubi is the fortified residence. It is externally similar to the defense tower but has different proportions (lower and with a wider base).  It distributes vertically onto three levels:  at ground floor the machubi with the stables for the animals, on the first floor the darbazi hayloft-storage area, on the top the defensive platform with the manchicolations.  Some of these buildings, like the towers, terminate with a crown supported by corbelled arches and have “dummy vaults” that separate residential quarters from defensive areas. A more appropriate name for these structures, found primarily in the villages of the Ushguli community, would be that of tower-houses.
Stone construction dominates the Svaneti region, even though some zones include wooden structures with auxiliary functions.  The thick walls of the buildings are made with irregular ashlars of stone dressed from the schist rock found throughout the area. This rock, easily split using mallets, generates 15-20 cm thick slabs that are used to make individual building components. The stone ashlars, laid with local sand and lime mortar, create archaic and severe masonry fabrics which offer a wealth of colors ranging from brick red to ochre to black to gray with a dominating rust tone.  The only buildings that were once covered with plaster, now mostly fallen, were the towers which show, below their lighter and more luminous skin, the precious multi-colored features of their lithic substance.
The roofs of the higher villages are covered with slate slabs. This same stone is used to pave he ground floors of the machubi.

 

 

 

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Vittorio Sella, A young mother on the doorsill of a house in the village of Gebi, Caucasus, 1890. Courtesy Fondazione Sella, Biella

 

 

 

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Vittorio Sella, Well-to-do family in the village of Gebi, Caucasus, 1890. Courtesy Fondazione Sella, Biella

 

 

 

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Vittorio Sella, House of the bear hunter in the village of Ushkul, Caucasus, 1890. Courtesy Fondazione Sella, Biella

 

 

 

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Vittorio Sella, The cadet prince with son in the village of Mazeri, Caucasus, 1890. Courtesy Fondazione Sella, Biella

 

The destiny of this vernacular heritage

A series of geographic and historical circumstances help to explain, in addition to their own structural solidity, why these tower structures still exist and remain today after at least eight centuries of existence.
Undoubtedly their defensive function helped preserve their potential value even in periods when they were not necessary for defensive purposes.  But perhaps the most important aspect that explains their durability is the isolation enjoyed by this region up until very recent times.
Upper Svaneti, placed up against the majestic peaks of the Great Caucasus, has always been an “extreme” land both for its climate and for its distance from the country’s main communication routes.  This circumstance has protected it from the many military aggressions and defeats sustained by Georgia during its many centuries of history.
It is by climbing the tortuous valleys carved by the Inguri and Tskhenistkali rivers that we meet the turreted villages dominated by the colossal peaks of Ushba and Shkhara. In the upper Inguri valley and in those that flow into it we find, in particular, the most important seats of this ancient vernacular architecture:  Ezeri, Latal, Mazeri, Mestia, Lenncer, Mujal, Adish and Ushguli.
Some of these can be compared with photographs taken by Vittorio Sella at the end of the nineteenth century. In certain cases everything seems almost unchanged. In others the landscape has been totally modified.  Mestia, for example, became a regional capital and the ancient system of turreted villages, scattered along the valley near to each other, has been engulfed by urban expansion that has nullified the spatial individuality of each settlement. At the same time we have a strong push for tourism.  This risks having an environmental impact on these sites that will be difficult to sustain unless a proper balance is found with the delicacy of the historic architectural heritage.
Another aspect that endangers the authenticity and perhaps even the very existence of these historic settlements is the decay that the towers and the machubi sustain because of the exodus of their inhabitants.
Fewer than a hundred and fifty of the hundreds of towers that existed in Svaneti until a century ago are still standing. Many of them are menaced with collapse in spite of the restoration efforts by the Georgian government.
Ushguli is particularly affected by these hazards, because it is the zone of greatest value for the quality of its architecture and its landscape, including the villages of Murkmeli, Chazhashi, Chvibiani and Zhibiani in a valley of incomparable beauty.
The Conservation Plan for the village of Chazhashi, complied by the Georgian section of ICOMOS in 2001, investigated its urban structures and architectural types in an exemplary manner, proposing specific restoration methods for the historic buildings and for the architectural structures from the first half of the twentieth century.
But ten years later decay still seems to continue and many buildings urgently need restoration and recuperation.  The internationally renowned vernacular architecture of Svaneti is urgently awaiting efforts and engagements in order to protect its extraordinary qualities from loss or transfiguration.

 

 

(1)  Carlos Martí Arís, Foreword, in Carlo Pozzi and Simonetta D’Alessandro “Alba Dominica” Palomar, Bari 2007

 

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Vittorio Sella, Group of young girls at a funeral feast in the village of Mazeri, Caucasus, 1890. Courtesy Fondazione Sella, Biella

 

 


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Vittorio Sella, Diners at the funeral feast in the village of Mazeri, Caucasus, 1890. Courtesy Fondazione Sella, Biella

 

 

 

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Vittorio Sella, Inside of the Dadish – Kilian castle in the village of Mazeri, Caucasus, 1890. Courtesy Fondazione Sella, Biella

 

 

 

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Vittorio Sella, Houses in the village of Gebi, Caucasus, 1890. Courtesy Fondazione Sella, Biella

 

 

 

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Village of Adish

 

 

 

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View of Mestia

 

 

 

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Ushguli site: the villages of Murkmeli, Chazhashi, Jibiani, Chvibiani. ICOMOS Georgia Study funded by Getty Grants Foundation

 

 

 

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View of Chazhashi (Ushguli)

 

 

 

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View of Chazhashi and Murkmeli (Ushguli)

 

 

 

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Drawing of a defensive tower of Chazhashi (Ushguli): floor plans, elevations, cross sections. ICOMOS Georgia Study funded by Getty Grants Foundation

 

 

 

 

 

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Village near Mestia

 

 

 

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Interior views of a machubi of Chazhashi, transformed in museum

 

 

 

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Drawing of the machubi stableshome in Chazhashi (Ushguli): floor plans, elevations, cross-sections. ICOMOS Georgia Study funded by Getty Grants Foundation

 

 

 

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Drawing of a fortified house in Chazhashi (Ushguli): floor plans, elevations, cross-sections. ICOMOS Georgia Study funded by Getty Grants Foundation

 

 

 

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View of Chazhashi

 

 

 

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Exterior of machubi

 

 

 

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Drawing of defensive towers and machubi in Chazhashi (Ushguli): floor plans, elevations, cross-sections. ICOMOS Georgia Study funded by Getty Grants Foundation

 

 

 

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Complex of fortified houses, defensive towers and machubi in Chazhashi (Ushguli)

 

 

Vittorio Sella‘s Svanetia

 

 

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Vittorio Sella, Monte Ushba above the village of Ezeri, Caucasus, 1889. Courtesy Fondazione Sella, Biella

 

 

Vittorio Sella, an eminent Italian photographer, Alpinist and explorer, made a most important contribution to awareness of Svanetian vernacular architecture.
Sella, born in Biella in 1859 in a family of woolen mill entrepreneurs, was introduced to photography by his father, Giuseppe Venanzio, author of the first photography manual in Italy, and to Alpinism by his uncle Quintino, a scientist and statesman, convinced of the educational value of Alpinism and one of the founders of the Italian Alpine Club.
Vittorio, schooled in landscape painting, began photography when he was not yet twenty years old, initiating with a systematic documentation of the Alps and of Etna and then a series of extra-European photography surveys.  As an expert Alpinist he undertook three expeditions to the Caucasus (1889,1890,1896), one to Sikkim around Kangchenjunga (1899) and three with the Duke of the Abruzzi: Alaska in 1897, Ruwenzori in 1906 and Karakorum in 1909.
Documentation brought back from the Caucasus expeditions consisted in about one hundred photography plates.  These three voyages gave Vittorio an opportunity to apply the capacities he had perfected in the Alps.  What he did in this region not only constitutes his personal masterpiece but is also an apex in terms of nineteenth century Alpine photographic exploration.  His photographs were able, by giving special attention to anthropological aspects, to render important elements of the culture of the sites being explored:  from the settlements themselves to the customs of the local populations.
His works, an expert synthesis of technical ability, a sense of perspective and dominating viewpoints and construction of articulated “scenic” shots, received important International awards and prizes.
Vittorio Sella left a large archive of photographic plates, travel diaries and books, now collected and preserved at the Sella Foundation in Biella.
This Foundation, founded in 1980, in addition to preserving these and many other documents, also carries out intense cultural activities to promote research on the history of the territory of Biella and on international photography.

 

 

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Vittorio Sella, Leila-Gora and the villages of Mestia and Lenncer seen from the village of Mulach, Caucaso, 1890, detail. Courtesy Fondazione Sella, Biella

 

 

 

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Vittorio Sella, Village of Mestia, Caucasus, 1889. Courtesy Fondazione Sella, Biella

 

 

 

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Vittorio Sella, Houses in the village of Mestia, Caucasus, 1890. Courtesy Fondazione Sella, Biella

 

 

 

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Vittorio Sella, Village of Mestia, Caucasus, 1889. Courtesy Fondazione Sella, Biella

 

 

 

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