Nowhere is the Maltese idiom more beautifully expressed than in the wonder walls of its farmhouses. Dream houses are usually just that: far and away, but if you wander down the winding village roads which usually follow the original field paths, and if you squint and look closely behind the trees and outcrops, you will find Maltese farmhouses which, despite being the most discreet and humble of buildings, are the closest you can get to the castles in the fertile air of your imagination.
The Maltese farmhouse has no close parallels to any of our European neighbours. Rather, it is closer to the architecture of North Africa. Ample proof is the fact that the different units of a farmhouse have Semitic names. Ghorfa, for instance, which is the first floor room that originally served as a human dwelling and which is set apart from the stables and storage rooms on ground level, has its closest relative in Tunisia. There, an Ghorfa is used to define a structure which is built using a mixture of cut stone and rubble.
Despite Arabic influences, Maltese farmhouses are the primary exemplar of a vernacular architecture; what Bernard Rudofsky would have called, ‘architecture without architects: Farmhouses are a unique, distinctive idiom that is expressed without pretensions and with deep respect for time, space, nature and the seasons, to which the layout adapts.
Farmhouses were built by people who lived close to nature and whose livelihood depended on careful assessment of the weather and strict planning for survival. Thus, what they needed were not fancy ornate dwellings but sturdy houses which are, literally, firmly rooted to the earth they stand on. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the actual planning of farmhouses which, as Richard England writes in his book ‘Uncaged Reflections'(1978), show ‘successful logical answers of common sense and simplicity… sheer straightforward thinking’.
From the outside, Maltese farmhouses blend in so well with their surroundings that instead of leaving a deep footprint they appear as though they have been there since the opening sentence of the Genesis. Facades are imposing, stocky and unadorned. As Carol J. Jaccarini writes in his study, lr-Razzett: The Maltese Farmhouse (C.J. Jaccarini, 1998), open stone balconies with ornate corbels; observation boxes; cornices, sculptural keystones and fanlights above the doorways are all later additions, yet they make a beautiful contrast with the otherwise blank canvas of the facade.
Most of the walls are tad-doblu, that is, double layered and filled with soil and stone chips. North facing walls are kept windowless. When they do have windows, it is only tiny apertures to prevent strong winds and rain from entering inside. Honey-coloured when first built, these limestone walls, on exposure, harden and weather, forming a protective crust which slows down erosion. Where walls are exposed to rain and sea-spray, qawwi (upper coralline limestone) or zonqot (lower coralline limestone) is used instead of franka.
To complete the austerity of the buildings, roofs are flat to serve for rain catchment and to put rows of melons and pumpkins so they could be ripened by the sun. Pigeon roosts made of stone are also common. Less so are stone cheese rooms with vertical wall slits to help cross-ventilation. Thus, cheeses can dry faster.
Inside a Maltese farmhouse, rooms are constructed in cubical forms. Their layout is functional; planned to provide shelter for the livestock. In fact, the ground floor was mostly used for animals, which were invaluable for meat, dairy products, transport and for sheer physical power in the fields. Livestock was housed and fed in the maqjel, the main animal room which was usually divided in a number of arched stables. Given that animals were stall-fed rather than allowed to graze, they were tied to hand carved stone tie-rings and fed through mangers or communal troughs, built along the walls. Animal rooms also have a number of ventilator openings, rather than windows, and one slit hole, called an amberzina, through which a farmer could insert a gun and shoot any intruders.
The maqjel was roofed using a variety of methods, each bypassing the problem that limestone, being a soft stone, is unable to support huge loads and stresses. The most common roofing system involved the use of arches or transverse beams and slabs. A less common method was to insert a longitudinal beam and have slabs resting on kilep, or side corbels. Extra long slabs, known as xorok tal-qasba, could also be rested on side corbels without using beams or on side corbels on either side of a central, longitudinal arch. Arches were either round, segmental, three-centred or rampant, where one abutment is higher than the other.
Outside the maqjel, a courtyard was built to provide shelter from the wind and make the most of the cool sea breezes. The courtyard also served as a ventilation link between the front and the back of the farmhouse. From the yard, a stone staircase leads to an arcaded veranda, called the loggia. This gives way to the ghorfa, which was usually of Spartan design, with sparse furnishing and deep wall recesses used as storage and larders. The floor of the ghorfa was either made out of a thin layer of beaten earth or paved with flagstones. These were then sealed with multiple coats of linseed oil, boiled with slices of prickly-pear leaf, which made the floor easy to keep clean. In the last decades of the 19th century, cement-based, square glazed tiles started being used. These were known as madum tad-disinn because of their intricate floral and geometric designs. With urbanisation, farmhouses no longer rule the countryside, and their use for farming is obsolete. Most are being converted into homes where the courtyard il sparkles with scarlet bougainvillea and the water in the pool laps while the garden blooms and blushes. It is only this careful conservation that retains the timeless simplicity and charm of a Maltese farmhouse.