From Romans to Migrants, Our Homes Are Shaped by the Times

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Last month I visited Provence with Jemima and the children, a favourite getaway for us that uniquely refreshes our minds and restores perspective. The architecture of Vaison La Romaine – the closest town to where we stay – is a forever evolving document of how landscape, environment and politics shape the buildings we live in, from ancient Roman ruins to Tony Esslinger’s state of the art contemporary home, which he wrote about here and here.

Vaison La Romaine was once Vasio, a prosperous Roman town which became a favourite retirement spot for Roman generals to put their feet up after years of campaigning across Gaul. The exposed ruins of Vasio and its surrounding Villas display an incredible modernity with gridded streets and architectural technology still being used today.

Roman society was one of peace maintained by strict and brutal order, overseen by centralised authorities who were keen to display their power to peoples they assimilated. Without the threat of imminent violence, the Romans had time to plan out gridded roads and develop advanced sanitation and drainage systems that wouldn’t be seen again in the region for hundreds of years.

The luxurious villas on the outskirts of the town were designed to adapt with the region’s dramatic shifts in temperature. Courtyards in the middle of the structure created shaded areas complete with ponds, where the air could cool and spread into the surrounding rooms. Then when winter came underfloor heating efficiently warmed every corner of the home without the structure having to cluster around the fireplace.

These Roman elites clearly had concerns beyond the practicalities of heating and cooling. The layouts of the homes were divided into spaces for entertainment and socialising in the front with private quarters in the back, with sight lines carefully designed to show off the quality and scale of the architecture. Sound familiar? It’s no different from the briefs we get from clients today!

In the tumultuous dark ages that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire the local population abandoned the open, comfortable plains for the more defensible rock on the other side of the Ouvèze river. This slow, organic piling of house on top of house with no single authority planning the layout resulted in a messy mediaeval town of narrow, winding roads spread out like roots of a tree rather than the ordered grids of Roman or modern cities.

The power and politics of those feudal times were written in the architecture, with the fortified castle at the very top of the rock and the rest of the population clinging desperately around it, dense and compact compared to the ease and openness of the old Roman town.

It wasn’t until the 18th century that the region would be peaceful enough for people to resettle the plains once enjoyed by the Romans. This land would become Vaison’s modern half, where building works uncovered long forgotten Roman Vasio, the bones of which are now exposed to the elements. Three distinct architectural styles sit alongside each other, yet it’s the Roman and the modern that have the most in common.

Uniting every era of architecture is beautiful Provence limestone, carved out by the slow force of water in the surrounding valleys and gorges. There’s simply no material that fits better in the landscape, and it’s clear why Tony Esslinger used it extensively in his home as well.

Driving out through Calais I saw a new, sobering layer of history in the hastily built refugee camps around the station. For the migrants, architecture has been reduced to its most basic elements: shelter, comfort and privacy. Just like the Romans, the medieval and the modern French, their homes are shaped by the times.

By John Dyer-Grimes