THE VERNACULAR ARCHITECTURE OF GASCONY AND AQUITAINE IN THE 19th CENTURY

Christian Lassure

French version


The former province of Gascony corresponds approximately to the present départements of Gers and the Landes, while the province of Aquitaine covers roughly the départements of Lot-et-Garonne and Gironde.

These provinces have been the privileged territory of the aisled farmhouse, although its area of distribution extends beyond their borders (as far north as in Périgord and Charente, as far north-east as in lower Quercy and as far south as in Pays Basque and Béarn).

In the Grande Lande region, where small-scale food crops and sheep rearing had long been dominant before the pine forest (pignada) was planted in the second half of the 19th century, the prevalent type of agricultural and pastoral farmstead was the “métairie”, architecturally a house with nave and aisles, i.e. a substantial rectangular block extending in depth, single-storied, built of timber-frame and daub infill, under a roof of two low-pitched slopes covered in half-round clay tiles, and with a gable façade. The load-bearing structure consists of several pairs of wooden posts supporting as many trusses. The façade, which looks into the East, comprises a central recessed entrance porch (estandad) which takes advantage of the morning sun, whereas the rear gable, exposed to the rains coming from the Atlantic, is sheltered under a roof hip (“queue de pigeon”). According to the social status of its occupants – one or two sharecroppers (bourdilé), a single sharecropper plus the landowner, or “maître” – the nave was occupied by a large living room which was either single or adjoining to a second living room, the aisles housing a “souillarde” or kitchen, a bedroom, a store room, sometimes a small byre (boujalet) for a pair of oxen used for ploughing or reserved for fattening. The space under the roof was used as a granary. The older “métairies” were built between 1750 and 1800, the more recent ones between 1800 and 1850, on behalf of the rural or urban upper classes, on the model of the houses they themselves inhabited in the market towns.

The ideal "Landaise house" as made popular by postcards and regionalistic lore: in the present case a low house, most likely a crop sharer's house, with a gable façade, a nave and two aisles and a central recessed entrance porch. Local colour is enhanced by the presence of a balancing well and its swipe. The building does not extend much lengthwise, the fronts of the aisles are windowless. Entry is through a wooden frame whose top member is carved in the form of a yoke. The legend on the back of the postcard mentions an "old house with its 100-year-old well".

In the Petites Landes region (eastern part of the “département”), a bipartite house-plan was at a later date substituted for the tripartite plan, with a partition wall being erected right below the ridge-piece, a new arrangement which allowed a boujalet to be added on to one side of the common living room, from which the team of oxen could be fed through a double opening (estaoulis) set into the long wall.

A region of widely dispersed settlement, the Landes was characterised by several “métairies”, together with their dependencies, being sited and scattered across the surface of a wide lawn planted with oak-trees and devoid of enclosures and hedges, namely the “airial”, a space meant for external communication between buildings as well as an area intended for the grazing of sheep, the preparation of animals' litter, the making of manure (“soutrage”), the threshing of rye, etc.

Among the outbuildings strewn over the “airial” were “parcs” or sheep shelters – also of a tripartite plan –, cart sheds with a ridge-post roof, “bordes” or absidal, saddle-backed buildings covered in thatch and used as sheep shelters, stables and cartsheds, as well as perched hen-houses, bread ovens, pigsties, well sweeps. More “parcs” and “bordes” were found scattered across the grazing grounds.

In the Chalosse area, on the edge of the “département” of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, the “métairie” with nave and aisles is again the prevailing type, although showing a few variations:
- the walls are built of limestone blocks or pebbles more often than of timber frame;
- in some instances, the recessed gable porch is missing and the nave forms a large single room with a cart entrance set into the gable façade: this is called the séo or “sol”, an arrangement akin to the Basque eskaratsa, connecting ground-floor rooms and serving as a threshing floor and a storage space for farm implements and carts;
- in some half-timbered specimens, the porch is reduced to a central recess at ground-floor level only: this is called the bouque aban (literally front mouth).

In the “département” of Gers, where the tripartite house ceases to be the dominant type, a few specimens, built of stone and timber frame, are still to be noticed around the towns in the eastern part. Lastly, the architectural type is also observable in the Médocaise and Girondine Landes as sheep shelters, and in the “département” of Lot-et-Garonne as huge barns with a porch in a gable or along a side wall.

Escornebœuf, Gers department: front gable and central entrance porch of a share-cropping farmhouse with aisle and naves built in 1853 on the instructions of the owner of Blanquefort castle. To the right of the porch is the byre with its façade entrance; to the left, are chimneyless bedrooms. Behind the porch, the common living room with its chimney and associated oven; at the far end, the cellar (photo by Christian Lassure, February 13th,1981).

The aisled house of the Landes, improperly dubbed the “landaise farmhouse”, actually coexists with other, rather late, architectural types brought into fashion in the second half of the 19th century, for instance, in the Born region (along the coast):
- the single-storied “longère” or lengthwise house stringing together living-room and bedroom, also built of timber frame, in which day labourers and “gemmeurs” (workers employed in tapping pines for resin) were housed;
- the two-storied house under a four-slope roof and with a long-wall façade, built of timber frame and daub infill, which was inhabited by a small landowner, and whose architectural model is urban or bourgeois.

The urban architectural type is also to be found in the vine-growing Gironde, where it combined with the various levels of the socio-economic hierarchy of the wine-making trade to produce houses using stone and half-round tiles as their materials:
- the house of the “bordier” or day labourer, a single-storied room with façade in a long wall, sometimes with an added cellar at the rear to store wine;
- the house of the small vine-grower, a “longère” or lengthwise house stringing together a living-room, a “chai” for wine making, one or two bedrooms, with sometimes an upper floor;
- the “maison de maître” or “château”, a late imitation, in Napoleonic times, of the aristocratic palaces of the “Ancien Régime” (i.e. Monarchy), a tall building with four-sided roof, symmetrical façade and central-entry plan, fronting a small courtyard with an entrance porch.

Urban models predominate in the Gersois part of Gascony and are of rather late date. Their originality stems from their structural relationship to outbuildings:
- in the Astarac and the Magnoac areas, the house, either with or without an upper floor according to the builder's financial means, whether of roughly-worked stone at ground-floor level and timber frame at first-floor level, or of layers of pisé or courses of unbaked bricks, or again of clay blocks and pebbles alternating in a checkerwork pattern, is laid out at an angle with the barn-cum-byre;
- in the large wine- and cereal-growing farmsteads of the lower Armagnac area, the house, built of half-timber, occupies one corner of the rectangle it forms with the outbuildings round a manure-making yard; the façade of the house looks onto the outside instead of the yard.

A final word must be said of an isolated group of houses found on the borders of Lot-et-Garonne and Dordogne, low single-storied rectangles built of thick oak planks piled up on edge, under either a low-pitched roof of half-round tiles or a high-pitched roof of flat tiles, whose origin remains uncertain (dwellings of 17th-century land clearers, or of woodcutters and pit-sawyers of a later period?).

Sainte-Sabine, Lot-et-Garonne department (photo by François Poujardieu)

 

Sainte-Sabine, Lot-et-Garonne department  (photo by François Poujardieu)

BIBLIOGRAPHY

BIDART, Pierre, COLLOMB, Gérard, 1984, Pays aquitains, L'Architecture rurale française, corpus des genres, des types et des variantes (Paris: Berger-Levrault)

CAYLA, Alfred, 1977, Architecture paysanne de Guyenne et Gascogne (Ivry: SERG)

LASSURE, Christian, 1981, 'Les maisons rurales du Gers aux XVIIIe et XIXe siècles : modèles bourgeois et modèles paysans', in L'Architecture Vernaculaire, vol. 5, pp. 46-51 (Paris: CERAV)

TOULGOUAT, Pierre, 1977, La maison de l'ancienne Lande (Pau: Marrimpouey Jeune)


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©  CERAV
September 9th, 2006 - Augmented on September 27th, 2007

The above contribution will be referred to as:
Christian Lassure,
The vernacular architecture of Gascony and Aquitaine in the 19th century,
http://www.pierreseche.com/gascogne-aquitaine_angl.htm,
September 9th, 2006

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