Built on friendship

By Annette Wild, December 2017

Together with a Roma family, the architect Flavia Matei built a house from clay in barely four months in the Romanian village of Rosia. A very special relationship developed. But Flavia Matei also had to fight against a lot of things: the bad weather, deeply entrenched preconceptions, cultural differences and a strong macho culture.

Photos: © Hannes Rohrer

There it stands, the house, looking robust and splendid with thick, white walls and a large wooden roof. The small dilapidated house next to it with the rendering and clay breaking away, seems almost like a dog kennel in comparison – but one with a satellite dish. Claudia Subtirel, slender with dark hair, invites us into her new house together with the architect Flavia Matei. Claudia’s eyes shimmer in a strange grey. She has suffered from cataracts since she was six years old.

Claudia’s three daughters, Andreea (11), Dalia (9) and Elena (7), sit on two sofa-beds which are shared by the family at night for sleeping and curiously observe the unknown visitor with dark eyes. The walls are painted in turquoise, there is a red carpet on the floor and white lace curtains hang on the windows. A wood-burning stove is alight in the corner, made from an old oil drum. There is a second room next door but it is not in use at the moment. It is winter and too expensive to heat two rooms.

There is no dining table and no kitchen either. The stove is used for cooking. Bathroom and WC would also be sought in vain. Claudia fetches water from the well in the village square and an earth closet in an outhouse beside the building serves as a toilet. Claudia is proud of her new home which she built with Flavia in barely four months. Compared to a house in Germany it is small and primitive but for the family here it represents a revolution; there is, after all, for the first time a room for the children.

Claudia and Flavia stand close to one another holding hands. Claudia looks at Flavia with gratitude. The many hours spent on the building site have created a special bond between them. A friendship has arisen – a friendship between two women who grew up in the same country but whose lives could not be more different: the one lives in this Roma settlement with no school-leaving qualifications, is poor and in the summer hires herself out to help with the harvest. However, since she has had her new house, she has risen in the estimation of the others.

The other comes from the city of Timisoara in the west of the country, 300 kilometres away, studied architecture in Vienna and as her diploma project planned and built this house.

Pigs, horses, excrement

Flavia stands deep in mud. It smells of pigs, horses and excrement. The swallows are twittering, dogs barking and the bells in the upper village are ringing. On the horizon, the still snow-covered peaks of the Carpathians are glistening in white. A rider gallops bareback across the unpaved village square. A carter takes his mare and her foal to drink at the village well. On the building site, no one has time to take in the scene. Flavia, Claudia and pupils from Munich have started the building work on Claudia’s new house this week.

Every year, the class 11 from the Schwabing Rudolf Steiner School comes to the lower village of Rosia to renovate or build new houses for the Roma in a social practical. This year, 6,000 clay bricks have to be made. Difficult to imagine because making them by hand is laborious. A tractor has brought clay from a pit at the edge of the village. Claudia cuts straw into approximately 15-centimetre-long pieces and mixes them with water into the clay in a large plastic trough.

Flavia examines the consistency. Then she throws a handful with great force into a wooden mould lying on a plastic sheet. She repeats this step until the mould is filled. Flavia and Claudia together lift the wooden mould by handles on its side and leave a moist clay block behind which should dry into a solid brick in the sun. Time-consuming, strenuous and tiring work.

Suddenly the wind whips up a corner of the plastic sheet. Flavia pushes a strand of hair out of her face with her clay-covered hand and looks at the sky where dark clouds are gathering. “Enough for today. It’s going to rain soon. Quick, we have to cover the bricks so they don’t get wet,” she calls.

Together with the class she climbs up the steep, dusty road, covered in horse droppings, to the upper village. Her back and arms are sore from mixing all that clay. A group of Roma men in tracksuit bottoms and black rubber boots approach and bark at Flavia: “For God’s sake, woman, why use clay? Why not proper bricks? Why not Ytong or concrete? It’ll never work!” The men make dismissive gestures with their hands – and walk away.

It is not pleasant to be subjected to this criticism every day for the next four months. “Walk of shame” is how Flavia begins to describe running this gauntlet from the upper to the lower village and back.

A house of clay and bottles

The Hans Spalinger Waldorf School, founded in 1998 for the children of the Roma families from the lower village, is located in the upper village. The purpose of the school is to provide for those children who have no chance in the state system. The school’s principal, Annette Wieken, also coordinates the help of two small associations in Germany and Switzerland which are engaged in Rosia and she decides each year which family will have its house renovated or a new one built. On the last occasion, Claudia and her family were selected. When at their first meeting Flavia showed Claudia on her laptop examples of modern architecture using clay bricks, Claudia became very enthusiastic.

But her husband Petre does not take Flavia seriously: “You are going to show me how to build a house? What do you know about building? I’m a building worker, I’ll show you how to build a house!” Neighbours come and laugh at the plans of the young architect. “That’s not unusual with clay construction, people are always very suspicious at the beginning. You have to keep calm and be patient until they learn to trust clay construction,” says Flavia.

The lack of trust in clay as a building material runs deep and Flavia also knows why: “Clay is automatically associated by the Roma with poverty,” she says. Yet the architect starts from the Roma’s traditional way of building with her project.

In her view, the advantages of the material are obvious: “Clay is free, easily accessible and sustainable. And clay stores heat.” Flavia uses dry reeds for the roof insulation. To insulate the floor, 4,000 glass bottles are collected and pushed in close proximity into a layer of sand with their necks facing downwards. Any gaps that remain are filled with sand by Flavia, Claudia and the helpers whom Flavia attracts to Rosia from all over the world. This technique serves to keep in the heat because the air in the bottles is a good insulator. The ecological aspect is also very important for the architect. But she knows: “For the Roma that is very far removed.”

The construction period is very hard for everyone – Flavia, Claudia and Petre are driven to their limits both physically and mentally. When Flavia has her lunch break from one to four, Claudia has no time to rest: she washes, cooks and tidies up. “I could not respect more what Claudia managed during that time,” says Flavia. Claudia’s husband Petre also has a lot to do: every morning at six he drives to Sibiu where he works on building sites – in the black economy because he has not birth certificate and thus has no chance of a permanent job.

When he returns to the village at eight in the evening, he continues to work with Flavia and his wife Claudia until ten or eleven on his future house – a house of which he does not know whether it will ever stand up. The whole village is already laughing about it. He cannot imagine either that the air-dried clay bricks will be able to bear the load of a roof.

Only when a section of wall has been built too long and he has to knock part of it down again with a hammer does he realise how strong the walls really are. From that moment on he trusts the clay method of construction and defends it against doubters. The women on the building site also make Petre nervous. After all, he is responsible for them all. That’s how he was brought up, that is the tradition. Women do not belong on a building site, they have to be protected. Bad enough that his own wife is helping.

One day the sander being used by one of the female volunteers slips and slightly injures the young woman on the leg. Petre feels responsible. He is so emotionally overwrought that he wants to smash the sander into little pieces. Flavia can only just stop him. “For modern women like myself and the volunteers it is very shocking to see that the greatest success for a woman from the village consists of becoming a mother. But the women here are so strong, they can do a lot more, as Claudia shows,” says Flavia.


It was not easy for Claudia to emancipate herself from her husband and the village community. Her trust in Flavia undoubtedly helped her. A trust which the young architect built up with great sensitivity. Flavia recalls: “Claudia wanted to show her gratitude and regularly bought juices and sweets for us helpers although she actually did not have the money to do so. Conversely, she did not want to accept anything from us. So I suggested a wager which it was clear I would lose. When I lost, I was allowed to buy juices and nibbles as my forfeit.”

It was not only a friendship which was born in those four months but also a child. And for this child Flavia just built another house in the lower village. The young Roma parents are about the same age as the Munich pupils who came to help, as they do each year.

Contact: Walter Kraus, prorosia@waldorfschule-schwabing.de


About the author: Annette Wild is a journalist who is involved in the Pro Rosia e.V. association at the Schwabing Rudolf Steiner School. Last year she helped to build a house in Rosia.


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