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The small houses of La Laguna 

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This article might satisfy the curiosity of the inquisitive English tourist or expatriot resident, and perhaps inspire Tinerfenos to look at the small single-storey houses, the ‘casas terreras’, in a new light.

On December 4th 1999 the city centre of La Laguna, the old capital of Tenerife, was designated a World Heritage Site based on the innovative fifteenth century layout of the city streets and highlighting the architecture of its civic buildings and grand houses. However, what is often overlooked, which is typical all over the world, is that palaces, castles, stately homes and mansions were built by very rich people who depended for their wealth largely upon the efforts of poorer people who lived in small, insignificant, often insubstantial houses that are ignored. In La Laguna during the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the era when the majority of the grand houses were built, most of the city’s population lived in little single-storey houses, the ‘casas terreras’. Sadly, in common with mass housing anywhere, the little houses of the old city were taken for granted and many were abandoned and demolished to make way for bigger buildings, or else they were drastically altered from their original state. Although these houses don’t seem to be publicly acknowledged as being an integral part of the World Heritage Site, many are now, thankfully, safe within the protected area. However, across the street from the sanctuary is another matter – one of the casas terreras has recently been demolished.

From a British point of view these small houses are unfamiliar and intriguing. Look at them from the street (which is all you can do because there are no backs or sides to them and no visible yard), and all you’ll see is a front door and a window or two, or, confusingly, there sometimes appear to be two front doors, or even three front doors in a line, so how do these houses ‘work’? By comparison, accommodation for workers in Britain in days gone by were terraces of two-storey houses, two-up, two-down and one out the back, with a back yard. Now, if you imagine taking off the top floor of that house and putting it in the back yard, then that would be the equivalent of the workers’ houses in Tenerife.

Of course, the biggest difference at the outset is that in England we want to let light into the house, which is just the opposite here, where people want shade, there is all the sunshine and warmth anyone could want outside. The front rooms, the best rooms, what we once called Sunday parlours, are there straight off the street for socialising, but otherwise, apart from a very small internal yard, or sometimes two, most of the other rooms have no direct light and no outlook, in fact more of an ‘in-look’ into the tiny yard, sometimes even utilising borrowed light across a passage way from the yard – very strange by English standards.

Without the abundant wealth (excessive, dare it be said?) possessed by a small minority of people centuries ago we would have had no Culture (with a capital ‘C’), no statues or fine paintings, no opera or classical music, no beautiful architecture, no stately homes or grand city centres, no city parks, no Capability Brown country park landscapes, etc. Now this might seem to be a moan by a socialist/Marxist/communist but it is important that small houses everywhere in the world, including La Laguna – the houses of the ‘little’ people who actually provided the wealth – should be recognised, acknowledged, recorded, and held in equally high esteem with the grand houses. (If anyone wants to know my politics by the way, I’m in the communist wing of the fascist party, or is it the fascist wing of the communist party? I can never remember which.)

Now I can reveal that there is a voluntary project under way that aims to gain recognition for the casas terreras of La Laguna. A small-scale study of three houses was undertaken in spring last year as a template for the bigger project. Following this, one day in July two volunteers walked about 12km of the streets of the old city to identify what turned out to be 151 casas terreras surviving in various states of modification and conservation. Thankfully, very few were categorised as ‘ruinous’.

The intention of the project is to make as complete a record as possible of the casas terreras within the World Heritage Site. This will include a search for any documentary records of the houses from the time of their construction up to the present day. It will be an interesting exercise to see if it’s possible to find the origins and influences for the designs, if there was in fact a set of standards, and what economic or aesthetic factors determined their selection. The report of the study will contain an overview of the traditional housing, the ‘small houses’ of the old city, illustrated by a photographic record (with several detailed individual case studies), a description of architectural styles, house types, typical facades and floor plans, and, where possible, construction details, building materials and methods that will be compiled in a handbook or manual. Just as an exercise, as an example of aesthetic details, take a look at the woodwork patterns on the doors and window shutters, they’re usually beautifully designed and usually passed by unnoticed.

It’s hoped that the report will be attached as an appendix to the UNESCO documents, from which the authorities will be able to nominate small houses to be put on tourist routes and included in guide books. And finally, it is hoped that all the results will be put on show in an end-of-project exhibition. But please, as tourists, or ex-patriots, or ‘swallows’, or as Tinerfenos, don’t just walk past the small houses, don’t take them for granted, pause and have a closer look, they are among the treasures of the island.