The mountain communities of Transylvania represent the last medieval landscapes left in Europe. Idyllic remnants of a now-forgotten past, the colors and styles reflect the cultural collisions between East and West.
Where We Work
Founded by Germanic settlers beginning in the 12th century, the Carpathian villages were built along the north side of the Transylvanian Alps as defensive outposts. The farms, hay meadows, and forests that surround them comprise an exceptional landscape, reflecting the now-vanished social environment of medieval Eastern Europe.
From the valley folds, the symmetrical pattern of the walled street houses, cobbled courtyards, and wooden barns extends in strips up the valley sides to thickly wooded ridges. The landscape and its way of life have changed little since the 12th century… The meadows are lush with wild flowers and streams run fresh from hillside springs. – Kim Wilkie, author of The Saxon Villages of Transylvania
High, snow-crowned crags once ruled over the valleys and oak forests of Transylvania. Encountering this regnant wilderness, the Saxons of medieval Europe created an ecosystem balanced precariously between the resolute determination of human development and nature’s inexorable reclamation.
A rare equanimity pervades the mountains, villages, valleys, and streams of the Transylvanian Alps
Like a picture grown yellow with time and decay, the local vernacular architecture preserves a distinct memory from a forgotten time. Displaying design elements of German, Romanian, and classical origin, each home was built using only lime from local kilns, oak from the surrounding forests, stone from the nearby hills, and bricks and tiles made by the Roma craftsmen who lived in the area.
The eminent botanist and conservationist, Dr. John Akeroyd, called Transylvania, “the very last example of an untouched medieval landscape in Europe.”
To make the best uses of Global Heritage Fund’s and our partners’ resources, we selected the village of Daia to serve as a pilot for project methodology within the cultural landscape of Saxon Transylvania. Situated on the Saes Brook and approximately 12 kilometers to the southwest of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Schassburg, Daia is a particularly well-preserved example of a Saxon village, with 220 houses dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. In this incubator project, we have developed successful preservation paradigms that will act as models for other locations within the Carpathian Villages conservation area and throughout Romania.
The peaceful ambiance of these idylls was shattered following the collapse of the Ceausescu regime in the 1990s. The majority of the Saxon Transylvanians emigrated to Germany, and their villages were abandoned in a period of resettlement and transition that continues to this day. Across the mountains to the south, a new generation of Romanians is choosing to build modern houses with modern conveniences, rather than adapting and restoring historical family homes.
Harmonizing nature and human activity is a hallmark of these beautiful ecosystems, but they are beginning to suffer from the latter’s gross imbalance. As their indigenous owners leave behind their properties or lose interest, old houses are abandoned or demolished. In place of authentic features, renovations replace traditional materials with modern ones while new structures are built in a style alien to the existing historical fabric. Without bringing modern development under control, it is likely that this unique part of European and global heritage will be lost forever.
What We Do
Dilapidated and disintegrating, demolished and renovated past the point of recognition, many of the finest examples of medieval architecture and landscaping seemed to be slipping from reality and into the history books. Global Heritage Fund and our partners stepped up in 2008 to prevent the last remnants of Europe’s feudal past from being lost forever.
The primary goal of Global Heritage Fund and our partners was to document these precious historical treasures before they were lost. Prior to restoration work, an experienced team of professionals was dispatched throughout Transylvania to create a photographic archive of the more than 50 villages and their unique vernacular architecture. When completed, this archive will serve not only as a cultural record for educational and research purposes, but also as an important tool enabling planning officials to both track unauthorized changes and implement repairs or reconstructions.
To ensure that this documentation bears fruit in the form of actual protection of these heritage sites, Global Heritage Fund is also supporting the implementation of a local heritage policy to provide legal protection for traditional structures. Carefully coordinating our efforts with national and local Ministry of Culture representatives, we have helped to enact legislation that has made it legally to demolish historic structures without ministry authorization. This is a crucial element of the project, as strong heritage protection laws, when properly enforced, will ensure the sustainability of the project’s preservation efforts.
Following the implementation of this legal framework, we have also helped to develop an active monitoring program to ensure legal restrictions on development – once in place – are respected. Those carrying out the monitoring observe and record changes made to buildings that do not adhere to local laws or national legislation, and take appropriate steps to mitigate the damage or destruction.
Due to the prevailing conditions of poverty that shape the experience of villagers in the Transylvanian Alps, thousands of historical structures lie derelict and are in need of immediate emergency repairs. One of the primary functions of Global Heritage Fund’s project in the Carpathian villages is to dedicate an appropriate amount of funds to these heritage emergencies through our Cultural Emergency Program. This fund awards small grants to enable repairs to significant buildings, roofs, or facades that would have otherwise been lost.
To ensure the sustainable preservation of these sites, our team on the ground has revived the use of traditional building techniques and construction materials by integrating local craftsmen and relying on their experience and trade to also educate young, local builders, laborers, and homeowners in proper conservation methods. To that end, only builders skilled in the use of traditional methods and materials have received GHF’s support. We have also established a training program for local villagers in conservation techniques, making it simpler for them to undertake changes and upgrades to their homes in a way that respects the traditional architecture.
In order to restore the vernacular architecture of the Carpathian Villages in a sustainable manner, Global Heritage Fund and our partners developed various community resources to both sustain the revival, and provide new opportunities for local stakeholders in a traditional context. We have encouraged local production of organic food and the protection of the medieval hay meadows, measures that have been wildly successful as a means of preserving the built environment, encouraging sympathetic development, and enhancing the value of these Transylvanian communities as an economic resource for this impoverished region.
These measures are vital for creating local tourist infrastructure such as guesthouses, regional tour guides, and restaurants, which depend on visitors seeking to experience this rare cultural landscape. Having created a framework for sustainable tourism and economic development in the region, we believe these ventures will serve as a model in Romania for the conservation of architecture and countryside, as well as cement the transcendent value of these structures in real economic terms.
The cornerstone of our conservation plan is ensuring a reliable source of building materials, without which preservation work on the local architecture would be impossible. The traditional, handmade terracotta roof tiles that define the region’s distinctive architecture have been difficult to obtain, much less produce. The local kilns that used to supply them have almost all shuttered due to the rise of industrial manufacturing.
As the tile maker’s trade slowly erodes due to time and competition, the region and the world is losing a truly unique art, one that cannot be easily replaced once lost. In turn, homeowners are compelled to modify their homes with cheap, modern tiles, whose design is not consonant with the architecture of traditional houses, thereby diminishing the historical significance and value of the property.
Using the expertise of the few remaining tile makers, Global Heritage Fund has secured investments to build new tile and brick kilns in key villages. As stakeholders in the enterprise, the older generation of tile makers train and empower the young apprentices, establishing an industry that will serve the community with new jobs and a variety of skills. The price of traditionally made tiles is still competitive, allowing local producers to make a profit from their trade. In addition to supplying the tiles necessary for repairs, these kilns will also provide employment to local laborers, including those transporting and installing the tiles.
- The Anglo-Romanian Trust for Traditional Architecture (ARTTA)
- The Monumentum Association
- Romanian Order of Architects
- Banca Comercială Română & Erste Group
- Local Directorates of the Ministry of Culture
- Heifer International
- Ion Mincu University of Architecture and Urbanism, Bucharest
Why It's Important
It is imperative that the last great remnants of European medieval life do not disappear from the tapestry of history. And that’s why we need your help. With your generous support, we will be able to continue saving the priceless heritage of the Carpathian villages.
In spite of the many challenges we and our partners face in the Transylvanian Alps, we have accomplished much and are planning to accomplish much more. Please browse through our accomplishments below:
- Historic, Social, and Agricultural Resources Survey of Daia This includes: archival research on the village of Daia; identification and classification of the village’s historic, cultural, and agricultural resources; demographic research on the historic and current residents of Daia; mapping of all cultural assets; and photographic documentation of every traditional house in Daia and other villages in Saxon Transylvania.
- All of these will serve as important tools for local officials, who will now be able to track unauthorized changes or demolitions to historical sites and conduct historical research. It will also enable them to make repairs based on the extant visual record.
- Heritage Management Plan for Daia This includes: a site management vision; documentation surrounding the history and significant features of Daia; surveys of existing conditions for cultural and ecological resources; recommendations for future management; a planning and zoning guide; design guidelines for the repair and/or construction of buildings.
- Monitoring program established to oversee all the villages in the Saxon area from Sibiu, Brasov, and Mures counties. This program will monitor the villages under its jurisdiction for illegal construction and alteration activities.
- 51 heritage panels erected in villages within the conservation area, with plans for 40 more in the villages of Sibiu, Mures, Brasov, Timis, and Bucovina. These serve as important resources in educating local people about the value of their heritage, and what to do – and not to do – when making alterations to it.
- Architectural guidebooks scheduled for writing and design. These are designed to be used by local authorities, architects, and homeowners for consultation regarding new construction within or modification of buildings in the historic preservation area.
- 20 houses restored throughout Carpathian Villages project
- The belltower of the Granari Church was dismantled and restored by students from the Architectural School in Sibiu.
- Many young craftsmen trained in traditional building techniques.
- Workshop funded for traditional handmade tiles
- Kiln constructed in village of Apos for creation of traditional tiles. It is hoped that the kiln will be able to produce over 60,000 tiles per year at peak productivity.
- Kiln repaired in village of Chibed
- Loan program implemented for local homeowners to obtain funds for the authentic preservation of their homes
From the golden hay fields to the rippling mountain streams, and from the fortress-like churches to the traditional Saxon homes, each element in the Carpathian villages is a key part of human heritage. However, we still have many challenges, and simply restoring the villages to their former greatness is not enough.
The government is providing more resources each year to monitor, protect, and support conservation in the historic zones, but there are dozens villages and hundreds of homes. All are in some state of disrepair, and without significant funds we cannot hope to save them all. A lack of skilled craftsmen and building resources is another concern. Though we are building kilns and training local people, we must also ensure that their newly developed skills are passed down to new generations, who will be able to maintain the glories of their heritage.
As we move into the next phase of our work in the Carpathian villages, we are confident that our many endeavors will help to preserve these unique landscapes, now vanished throughout most of Europe, for many years to come. We have the following work planned for Daia and the other villages in the Carpathian highlands:
- 10 houses and 10 barns planned for immediate restoration.
- 65 houses planned for overall restoration.
- 60 windows planned for restoration.
- Fortified church planned for restoration.
- Commercial lime kiln and pit planned for construction
- Carpentry atelier planned for establishment.
- Traditional forge planned for establishment.
- Qualification program for craftsmen in development
- New economic opportunities, particularly in dairy farming, planned.
- Tourism and guesthouse workshop
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