( 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,
“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
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
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
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
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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