[Originally published in The Architectural Review in April 2022]
Before the arrival of steel and concrete, the most widely used building material on Spain’s Balearic Islands was marés, a sandstone formed in the Pleistocene by the compression of sea-sand and seashells, whose calcium acted as a bonding agent. This beige stone hides just below the surface of much of Mallorca and Menorca, revealing its stratifications along their rugged shores. Extraction of this stone, which dates as far back as the ancient Phoenicians, was originally from the coast, where it could be shipped by barge to construction sites. Traces of shore extraction are still visible in the form of orthogonal rock formations. In the Middle Ages, marés was shipped from these islands to as far as Perpignan and Naples, where Mallorcan kings and later the Crown of Aragon built royal palaces and castles. Eventually, with modern machinery, marés extraction moved inland, where over a thousand open-pit quarries abound to this day, although very few remain active.
Marés was used in the Balearic archipelago until well into the 20th century for just about every type of construction, whether monumental or utilitarian. Palma’s splendid cathedral completed in 1346 and its beautiful Llotja, a trading centre completed in 1452, are built of this stone, as are its defensive walls, countless houses, rural agricultural sheds and the many historical windmills that dot Mallorca’s landscape. Marés was simply the most readily available building material on these islands – the vernacular equivalent of brick or timber frames elsewhere. With the arrival of modern construction techniques and the development of larger building types, marés construction was rendered obsolete, relegated to a more decorative role at 1960s sun, surf and sangria holiday resorts.
A notable exception is Can Lis, the house Jørn Utzon completed for his family in 1972 after returning to Europe from his bitter experience building Australia’s Sydney Opera House (AR February 2019). Can Lis is an ensemble of pavilions united by garden walls, porches and patio courtyards, with modern precast-concrete joists and ceramic bovedillas (a type of hollow block) supported by marés cavity walls and piers that moderate daylight and frame sea views. The villa was restored in 2012 by Danish architect Lise Juel with local firm Aulets Arquitectes, and is today a canonical example of mid-century modernist architecture employing stone in a structural role.
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