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Living Architecture - the look

Living Architecture - the look

However appealing we might now find it, the way a place looks can actually owe as much to solid, down-to-earth practicalities as to any aesthetic considerations...

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As any architect will tell you, rural architecture is likely to change perceptibly with every 30km you travel, which goes some way to explaining why France is so endlessly fascinating to visitors from overseas.

But they’re not the only ones; each summer otherwise perfectly sane people travel vast distances just to spend their holidays in a complete change of surroundings. Compare the very different look and feel of places like Alsace, Brittany, the Auvergne, Normandy, Provence and the Pyrenees, and France begins to seem less of a country and more a continent. Our own Centre-Ouest region has more than its fair share of architectural variations, so we decided to celebrate them, and their trademark features, starting with the general appearance.

While towns (and eventually cities) developed for logistical reasons, like having a secure location, or being beside a key waterway or important trade route, a glance at a large-scale map today reveals a multitude of hamlets and villages dotted around the countryside at surprisingly regular intervals. Why? For the down-to-earth reason that until the 1940s most people lived by farming, and since there’s only so much land you can cultivate using horse-power, each community had its own workable radius, beyond which another would be established. Add marshland, contours and tracts of forest to the mix and an overall appearance for the landscape begins to form.


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This brings us to the particular look of man-made features, whose style will vary as a result of obvious factors like the natural building materials which are readily available nearby – and which in our region usually happens to be stone. A well-built stone structure can be a thing of great beauty, but if that’s what you have then you can bet that, rather than any aesthetic statement, it simply offered the most cost-effective option for the construction site. There was likely to be an element of luck involved too, since stone quality is variable, to say the least, particularly when it comes to the limestone (or calcaire) which was created when the Atlantic covered much of what is now dry land. In northern areas, around Loudun, for example, you’ll encounter much the same pale cream limestone known as tufa which was quarried to construct and embellish the elegant Renaissance chateaux of neighbouring Touraine. Its softness made it easy to work, the downside being susceptibility to frost damage. Almost as revered is the limestone from coastal areas like the Vendée and Charente-Maritime, which can be almost white but which (like tufa) tends to acquire a pale grey discolouration once airborne fungal spores take a liking to it. Again its softness when quarried means that it can be cut into blocks with smooth, dressed surfaces (pierres de taille) and worked into decorative features to adorn facades, or in the case of construction intended to impress, complete exterior walls. You’ll find numerous examples of these architectural showpieces in prosperous towns like La Rochelle and Rochefort.
Further inland, particularly in the heart of the region, workable construction stone of any size is often in shorter supply, so the best is used for features like corner quoin-stones (coins d’angle), particularly around doorways and windows. These must incorporate both an external recess or rebate to allow shutters to be closed securely (so they can’t be lifted off their pins), another larger one for mounting the window and finally an angled internal reveal to maximise the daylight entering the spaces within.



Between these precisely formed items, which were often sculpted by skilled stone-cutters (moelloneurs) employed by quarries, would be laid the stonework for the inner and outer walls (generally with an earth core). In many quarries the stone is deposited in relatively neat horizontal layers which, with little subsequent shaping, could provide near rectangular stones (moelons) for good quality stonework requiring minimal mortar joints. Often, though, much less regularly shaped stones (moelons brut) were simply gathered from the fields and laid with sufficient mortar to accommodate the variations in size and shape. A similar technique is frequently seen in Charente-Limousine, around Montmorillon, etc., where much harder granite was more commonly available, but less practical to resize. This stone-and-mortar approach is often visible between a structural framework of heavy timbers (pans) employed in medieval-style construction in towns which have a long history – Cognac and Confolens having some good examples. Villages in northern Dordogne too, although here, and just about anywhere with a brickmaking tradition, terracotta can provide the infill materials.
In many rural areas it was commonplace to leave the stone walls of agricultural buildings like barns exposed, the refinement of a lime-render coating (enduit à la chaux) being reserved for structures intended for human habitation. Should you decide to reveal rendered stonework, or renew degraded render, you might be surprised to find areas of brick among the stone, a simple way of forming a chimney flue or even a thinner section of wall for a cupboard to be created in a wall recess.


Stonework in Rochefort


So far we’ve looked at some of the basic practical considerations which shaped the appearance of the countless traditional stone buildings which make up much of the rural architecture of our region. To this we might add the occasional example of cob construction (not to mention the distinctive timber slatting which tells you that you’ve stumbled upon a tobacco-drying barn). If much of it was influenced by the underlying geology, then climate also played an important role – which of course brings us to things like tile and slate roof coverings, something we’ll be looking at next time.


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