Yemen's coastal plain along the edge of the Red Sea gives way on the east to parallel mountain ranges. Their far slopes fade gradually into the desert and are generally barren; but on the west the steep sides of mountains which receive rain are terraced and fertile. Out of this landscape like a succession of organic outcrops emerge Yemen's fantastic hill towns, dense intricately worked clusters of tall painted houses, some of them of great antiquity. Sana'a, in the middle of a long chain of these wonders at a height of over 2000m, is a jewel. It was an important centre in south-western Arabia for nearly 2000 years and became, after cessation in 1969 of the Yemen civil war, the capital of the whole country.
Turned in upon itself for centuries, its indigenous arts and architecture describing an ancient culture, the Yemen survived intact until relatively recently. The advent of oil money at the end of the '70s brought in its wake urban destruction and insensitive modern development; later, the sudden influx of 3 million refugees from the Gulf War caused equal havoc. The effects could be seen for example in the gradual erosion of the picturesque ethnic quarters surrounding old Sana'a. In the early '80s the General Organisation for the Preservation of the Historic Cities of Yemen (GOPHCY) was established to try and protect what was left of the country's heritage; and its scheme to restore and conserve old Sana'a was given a 1995 Aga Khan Award for Architecture (AR November 1995).
GOPHCY's work has attracted UNDP as well as UNESCO and World Bank backing, and funding and technical assistance from foreign governments - the Italians, Germans and Dutch seem to have been particularly sympathetic. Water supplies and sewerage have been organized, basalt and limestone paving is being relaid and a number of buildings have been restored. But inevitably any organization, however excellent, which is dependent on bureaucracies for money must work at bureaucratic speed. Part of GOPHCY's strategy has always been to try and encourage individual as well as group efforts, but without much success. An exception is Marco Livadiotti, an Italian businessman and amateur architect, who at present appears to be the only private individual working to save the texture and fabric of Yemen's unique highland towns. Brought up in the country from the age of five, his dismay at what he saw as the destruction of precious traditions impelled him into becoming a builder and entrepreneur. Beginning with his own house in the old Turkish quarter of Sana'a, he set himself the task of learning how local buildings were put together and finished, how they related to climate and culture.
Yemeni hill towns and their characteristic tower houses, which do not occur on the Red Sea coast, were primarily constructed as defences against the tribal and familial warfare that formed a pattern of life over centuries - as it did in medieval Europe. The houses, which vary in height, can be from three up to eight or nine storeys high. Going up, the building spaces become larger, lighter and airier. Rooms for entertaining were at the top, family below and animals, fuel and stores in the lowest levels.
Livadiotti's house, described as 'medium class', is 120 years old and three meandering storeys high, with thick walls constructed in the traditional manner of stone, brick and clay to provide vital thermal mass. Some patching was necessary, the basement and ground floor needed reinforcing and wooden ceiling beams replacing. Externally and internally, the building had been coated with impervious chemical white paint which was stripped off and replaced with creamy gypsum plaster. Applied in layers, it catches and softens the light while allowing the structure to breathe.
Internally, traditional features like decorative plasterwork have been revived, and Livadiotti has restored or reinstated old forms of glazing to the various kinds of openings. Coloured glass scattered jewelled patterns over walls and floors; and thin sheets of alabaster, casting a honeyed glow, were originally used to glaze arched or circular lights over shuttered windows and fanlights over doors. Alabaster is no longer easy to find, but searching markets, the sites of ruined houses and mines eventually proved successful.
Since the completion of his house and others in the town, Livadiotti has moved on to more ambitious projects, some of them with the help of a local architect and expert in restoration, Abdullab Hadrami, and a youthful Yemeni workforce. The projects include, remarkably, the restoration of a fourteenth-century palace near Sana'a at Rawdha - the Yemeni Versailles - which is used by the government and foreign embassies for receptions. The buildings, including his own house, are repositories of indigenous arts and crafts: decorative fabrics, chests and boxes, and carpets from Red Sea coast markets.
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|Title Annotation:||restoration of Yemen housing|
|Publication:||The Architectural Review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1998|
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