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The Free Mason: Miquel Ramis
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( Contemporary Balears Magazine)

At a former barracks in Inca, stoneworker Miquel Ramis gives his time for little or no reward in order to train a new generation of masons.

In the battle to save Mallorca’s architectural heritage, Miquel Ramis is a general of unparalleled vision. Having once worked in the mass tourism industry he knows his enemy well; having been born into a family of stone masons he knows what he’s fighting for. And he trains and marshals his troops in, appropriately enough, a barracks at the centre of the urban devastation that is the town of Inca.

Here in this vast abandoned structure Ramis has set up an astonishingly ambitious school–called Artifex Balear–for stone masons, who he hopes will soon graduate and carry on his crusade against the shocking destruction of Mallorca’s buildings and their replacement with miserable, mediocre constructions.

“There are laws to protect architectural features,” he explains. “But every day of the week, things like Gothic windows get destroyed, ripped out and thrown away in skips. Reporting these breaches is no good. And anyway, it’s too late by then. The best way to protect our architectural heritage is to educate construction workers. They’re the only ones there on the site. And if they see something worth protecting they can tell the owner. They can tell the architect.”

Img: Stoneworker Miquel Ramis teaches students at his school in a former barracks in Inca.

Every day from 6pm till 9pm, after a hard day’s work, some 20 students make their way to Ramis’ workshop in the former barracks, which they are restoring and ambitiously vaulting in return for a 10-year lease on the property. The halls are filled with slabs of stone on wooden pallets, half-finished torsos, dolphins, urns, fountains, lions and gargoyles, all carefully sculpted by the students Most come from the world of construction and learn much more than a new trade.

“Many of the great architects were construction workers. They were self-made and they were late starters.”

With infectious enthusiasm Miquel leaps from topic to topic, taking his students on a roller-coaster ride through art history and architectural theory.

“We go over everything one needs to know about working with stone: drawing, art history, the history of stone masonry, stone restoration, design and so on,” explains Miquel.

 

Img: Students learn to make fountains, columns, Gothic windows and doorways

At home the students can log on to the comprehensive website designed by Miquel, a virtual classroom and library where students can roam and learn for hours on end. The webpage also has a database of thousands of images of architectural features and a dictionary of stone masonry and other architectural terms that Miquel himself is compiling. “As the traditional trades die out, so too does the vocabulary and we’re trying to rescue that.

“The students soon realise that their trade is not just any old trade but a great trade,” he goes on. “And some of them will say to me, ‘Since I started coming here I’m having problems with my wife. You see I'll be walking down the street with her and I’m not listening to a word she’s saying. I’m taking in all the architectural details everywhere around me.”

Conservation-minded Miquel encourages students to waste as little as possible. At the beginning of the two-year course, students melt down old car springs and scrap metal and fashion their own tools. Later they’ll learn to decorate and embellish them.

 

Img: Miquel's stonework course runs for two years with students attending three hours a day.


Soon, students are chiselling away, learning to make columns, capitals, windows, doorways, arches, well heads; in short, “everything the builder of a Gothic cathedral would need to know.”

“For stonemasons the Gothic period is our golden age. The mason was given freedom to work. Nowadays in our profession architects don’t give you a chance to create or to surprise. Gaudí, though, was different–he’d give instructions and the masons would get on with the work and they’d be allowed to do things on their own initiative. People look at some of Gaudí’s work and are amazed but not everything they see is his.”

With the help of his father, Miquel built his first stone house when he was just 23. But like many Mallorcans he went into the tourist industry instead of following the family trade. Demand for traditional building methods was at an all-time low and mass tourism and mass building projects had a voracious appetite for cement and little else. Though Miquel was successful as the marketing manager of a hotel chain, in 1997 he gave it all up to work again as a stone mason and soon after set up his school. He is convinced that people will come round to appreciating traditional building, especially if they can be persuaded that it doesn’t have to cost much more.
“Take a Gothic window. It’s essentially a square structure and therefore inexpensive to make,” he explains. “Then we carve the arch and curves into it. The window is still square but your eye follows the curves. It’s more beautiful.”

Students get lots of practice making Gothic windows as well as other features common to traditional Mallorcan homes. There’s a spiral staircase at one end of the hall, for instance, though Miquel has made this one, perhaps aptly, with a twist.

“In this spiral staircase we’re mixing a staircase from Palma’s cathedral and one designed by Palladio. You see it’s not about just learning history and repeating it. We can do something contemporary. But contemporary architecture has to remember its local roots. It has to fit in with its surroundings and be inspired by them.

“The idea is to incorporate and then work freestyle,” he continues. “In a word, we re-create.”

Miquel’s school makes an inspiring visit and his labour of love hasn’t gone unnoticed abroad. He has forged international links with other schools, workshops and associations and in September 2007 hosted an international symposium on stonework in Deià which brought together artisans, artists, architects, designers, contractors, suppliers and others involved with stonework from all over the world.

“We’ve got everything here to make the best school of its kind in Spain. Everything, that is, except money,” says Miquel, who dedicates his time and energy to the underfunded project for free.

So next time you need a Gothic arch or Renaissance fountain, remember the stone mason skills of Miquel Ramis and his team of hardworking students."

You can make something decent out of any old lump of stone," concludes Miquel. Even, one suspects, those proverbial castles in Spain.

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