In Matera, a small town in southwestern Italy, city, people, animals and nature are symbiotically related. The architecture of the city is part of the landscape and the inhabitants. This cultural landscape further determines the way of living together, creating a harmonious living space for all.
The city, the life there and the thoughts behind the construction fascinate me. On site, the symbiosis between man and nature is clearly palpable. Not only the city conveys this feeling, but also the inhabitants, the Materani, themselves.
Visiting this city made me think differently about living and left me amazed.
Matera: city of stone in resonance and symbiosis with nature
The cityscape of Matera corresponds to the geology and nature of the natural space that can be found there. The city is not only created from the material on which it stands, but also inserted into it.
Since the Palaeolithic Age, progressing over centuries, a city of stone has developed that has always been in resonance and symbiosis with nature. Matera is with Aleppo one of the oldest cities in the world.
Dwellings were cut into the tuff found there. In later stages of development, this stone was dug out of the mountain and used to build the houses. Thus Matera is also a true city of sustainability.
The entire architectural history is thus recognizable in Matera: from the natural cave, to the enlarged cave, which was then closed from the outside and decorated on the inside, to the independent construction of houses from and on the material found there. This is the ability and the will to adapt to the barren landscape.
Development phase #1: Murgia Materana
Already in the Neolithic Age, about 20,000 years ago, people settled in the so-called "Murgia Materana" and found natural shelter in the grottos and caves on the plateau of the "Murgia". The living conditions were good: there was a river, fertile land and easily workable building material.
They found a canyon that collected the water, thus keeping the plateau dry. The plateau also offered good visibility to wild animals, which were hunted to the bottom of the plateau and then fell perfectly for hunting in the canyon.
Symbiosis inside and outside
The symbiotic relationship between Matera and nature is also evident in the inhabitation of the caves inside. Since there are limited natural sources of water in this region of Basilicata, the inhabitants of Matera developed a unique technique to collect and use rainwater.
They built elaborate systems of gutters and cisterns to channel and store rainwater from the roofs into the rock. This water was then used for daily needs, agriculture and animal husbandry.
The interiors of the caves were always cool in summer and warm in winter, thus maintaining a continuous temperature. This is also a natural way to adapt and face the conditions and challenges of the natural space. As early as the Paleolithic Age, people cultivated small gardens in front of their caves. These were the beginnings of agriculture and the production of their own food.
Development phase #2: Sassi di Matera
Consequently, in the course of millennia, a city of self-built stone houses, the so-called "Sassi di Matera", emerged. However, this formed on the other side of the canyon or the river valley Gravina on the plateau.
For the construction of the Sassi used the natural rock formations along the canyons and adapted them. This created an intricate network of cave dwellings, narrow streets and small squares, rock churches in between, which together make a great architectural work of art.
Architecture as a component of the landscape
Behind the construction of the city of the "Sassi di Matera" was always the idea that a house belongs to the natural and geological landscape. The architecture is part of the landscape. Architecture has united with the landscape and takes into account landscape. It is therefore a cultural landscape where man and nature live united.
The Sassi di Matera are an outstanding example of how human settlement can exist in perfect harmony with the natural environment.
Like the city, like the people
The way of living also determines the way of coexistence and the culture that emerges with it. The caves had no light and little air inside. Therefore, the inhabitants very often stayed outside in front of the cave. The place in front of the cave was the only meeting place for the family and surrounding cave dwellers. There was a brazier with a fire, where the family and neighbors gathered to warm themselves and talk about the day.
Each family lived together with their animals and saw them as family members. However, the animals were not kept in a separate part of the cave, as one would imagine from today's perspective, but lived together with the people in the caves. Thus, there was no fixed separation between inside and outside. The inhabitants used the premises flexibly depending on the season, outside temperature and the needs of the animals and family.
A visit on site
Today and over time Matera has become a mixture of natural caves and masonry housing. The city has managed to preserve its historic environment while promoting sustainable practices to protect the natural beauty and richness of the surroundings.
It is definitely not a relaxing walk between the Sassi di Matera, the smallest winding streets and churches, then down the gorge and up to the Murgia Materana.
But perhaps it is precisely this that gives a sense of how difficult it must have been for the inhabitants to create such a symbiosis. Maybe it is also exactly what reminds us that before the construction of a city there was nature.
In Matera, nature is still there even after the city has been built. This and so much more put me there in a state of pure amazement.
Inspired by symbiotic places
Do you know such symbiotic places, where man was in harmony and exchange with nature while building his dwellings?
SRF (2019): Matera – von der Schande zur Kulturhauptstadt. https://www.srf.ch/play/tv/kulturplatz/video/matera---von-der-schande-zur-kulturhauptstadt-2019?urn=urn:srf:video:7ccae4ac-78c7-48c6-b3e7-97b35022e4b1 (acessed at: 05.06.2023).
ARTE (2014): Wie das Land, so der Mensch: Italien; Matera Doku. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QBan-Cr6vtM (acessed at: 05.06.2023).