The Fascination of Farmhouses

Interest in farmhouses goes back to the 19th century, arising in connection with a romantic return to the “simple” farming life and a growing national identity. There’s no one more knowledgeable on the subject than Benno Furrer, research director for the Swiss farmhouse research project.

The nation’s chief expert on farmhouses doesn’t live in a quaint old shingled wooden chalet in the country, but rather in a modern freehold flat in Cham, in the canton of Zug. What went wrong there?

Nothing. In my defence I can say that I lived in a farmhouse from the year 1836 in Bürgeln, in the canton of Uri, for six years. My wife and I had to chop our own wood for heating. This was between 1979 and 1985, when I was researching farmhouses in the canton of Uri. The problem was that this living situation didn’t afford me any distance from the object of my research. We also had two small children at the time. There was no soundproofing, and the farmer lived directly below us.

Farmhouses have always held a fascination for artists, tourists, ethnologists and folklorists. Academics have also grappled with the subject for some time. Where did your interest in rural buildings come from?

What fascinates me is the technical knowledge and workmanship needed to build farmhouses since the 13th century.

Owner and craftsman must first find the right trees for the job and fell them at just the right time, so that the wood is durable and suitable for a house that will stand for a long time. One thing that’s often forgotten: in former times, wood did not offer much leeway as a building material in house construction. Certain proportions in the length, height and width were dictated by the size of the available trees, unlike stone construction. There, one simply used more stones.

Does the Swiss farmhouse research project only deal with historically significant buildings, or does it also include research into modern farmhouses?

The project looks at the entire history of their development, from the oldest building dating back to the 12th century to those built in the 20th century. We examine not only the farmhouse as the farm’s residential building, but also all of the associated ancillary structures such as cart sheds, barns for both large and small livestock, sheds, granaries, high mountain huts and the “Stöckli”, which is where the parents lived after they passed on the farm to the younger generation.

“What fascinates me is the technical knowledge and workmanship needed to build farmhouses since the 13th century.”

Benno Furrer, farmhouse research

Did your research also include social and economic factors as well as living and working conditions on farms?

Yes, because buildings also tell you how their inhabitants lived. Here’s an example: families on Alpine farms with buildings at higher and lower elevations used to move house between them several times each year. In the valley, they had their working farm with a house and a barn. There’d also be a “Maiensäss”, also with a small house complemented by another three or four small barns, depending on the grade of the slope. Moreover, dairy farmers operated on different levels, using Alpine pastures for their cattle depending on the weather and vegetation. For each level, the farmer needed a small shelter, perhaps in the form of a mountain shack. A single farm may well have had up to 20 or 30 small buildings. And then their numerous buildings for processing fruits – such as fruit drying kilns, wine presses, distilleries and cider houses – afford a deeper insight into these specific branches of agriculture. There was a boom in consumption of fruit wine and schnapps, connected to industrialisation, the growth of cities and the laying of railway lines.

Switzerland is proud of the diversity of its farmhouses. Which regional features are the most notable?

Diversity and distinct regional differences might sound very good, but is only partly true. These major distinctions were actually only seen in the 18th century. The further back one looks, the more similar the farmhouses are in their design and construction. The same applies to more recent times. The farmhouses built in Switzerland in the 19th and 20th centuries are all of very similar construction. I can start with typical regional farmhouses as a hypothesis, however: Engadin farmhouses typically have massive stone walls that are often decorated with sgraffiti, with barn and house connected by a large porch or by an antechamber called a “Sulèr”. In eastern Switzerland one often sees half-timbered houses, while stone construction dominates in western Switzerland and Ticino. In the country’s interior we have many wooden log houses with overhanging “Klebedach” roofs protecting rows of windows. A typical Emmental farmhouse in turn will have a long, hipped roof over the living area, threshing floor and stable. The house will often have an ornate gabled arch, known as a “Ründe”.

It seems that some regions place more importance on the house’s facade and others place more importance on its interior fittings.

This is a matter of how much one shows to the public and how much is reserved for private areas. In the Bernese Oberland, for example, one finds farmhouses with large, colourful and decorative wooden facades, while the interiors are rather austere. In central Switzerland, this situation is reversed. There the farmhouses are often quite plain on the outside, but with opulently decorated and painted interiors. In central Switzerland great importance was placed on a parlour with richly carved wooden dressers, sideboards and ornate panelling. The kitchen, on the other hand, generally did not enjoy a high status in farm life. It was, after all, the place for women’s work. Most kitchens had very little natural light. There were no pipes that brought water directly to the house and the kitchen. If the farmer managed to save a little money, he would invest it in the cowshed – or he’d buy a cow or a piece of land that would in turn bring him a profit. Cultural factors like religion and belief also had a strong influence on farmhouse construction and design. In Protestant regions, one encounters house facades with biblical verses in decorative scripts. In Catholic regions, on the one hand one finds the richly ornate “Herrgottswinkel”, or family altar, in a corner of the parlour, while other rooms will have frivolous drawings such as portrayals of a naked Adam and Eve.

Careful renovation by the Stiftung Ferien im Baudenkmal has created a successful blend of tradition and modernity. | Photo Zeljko Gataric

“If the farmer managed to save a little money, he would invest it in the cowshed.”

Benno Furrer, farmhouse research

The research team spent a lot of time in the archives and made use of a variety of sources, consulting land registers, cadastral plans and documents on the allocation of timber.

If they were available! We saw major differences as regards sources between cantons that were once governed centrally and those that were not. Some important sources were not available for decentrally-organised central Switzerland. Things were better in the centrally-organised Mittelland, where building applications had to be submitted to a specific authority, and there was already compulsory building insurance and the corresponding ledgers as early as 1812. This allowed us to glean information such as the name of the owner, function of the building and materials used to build the roof and walls. Also valuable as research documents were journals and witness statements relating to accidents and crimes, such as cases of fire or theft.

You and your team visited the owners of farmhouses without giving advance notice. Were you always given a warm welcome?

In most cases, yes. These meetings were very important to us. It was the only way for us to gain access to the houses’ interiors and find out whether these properties were relevant to our research project; and, if yes, to what extent. We intentionally carried out unannounced visits, which allowed us more efficiency than had we tried to set up appointments in advance. Moreover, official letters with official letterheads tend to scare country folk. They get suspicious and worry that some public official will come to impose new requirements.

 What were the most important findings from your many years of research?

One definite highlight from our research in central Switzerland was the discovery of more than two dozen late medieval log houses in the canton of Schwyz. They characteristically feature visible floor and ceiling boards on the facades and no attics, in other words, they have no rooms directly under the roof. These houses have held up well in astonishingly large numbers at lower elevations in Schwyz. Some are still inhabited today, others stand – or stood – empty.

… amidst spectacular Alpine scenery.

What is the quality of rural construction like today? Is any value still placed on good architecture and attractive details?

I can’t speak for architecture. Farm buildings are built with standard procedures and practical modular construction. This is also dictated by the federal authorities through their subsidising these types of structures, so roofs are built with Eternit corrugated sheets that don’t weigh much and thus don’t need strong roof construction. Some kind of nailed construction serves as the substructure. The life expectancy of these buildings is 15 years, at most 20. Newly constructed houses on farms may last longer, but even there, one doesn’t see a tendency for quality demands and ambition.

In late 2019, “Solothurn”, the last of the 39 volumes in the series “Die Bauernhäuser der Schweiz” (Farmhouses of Switzerland), will be published, bringing the project to its official conclusion. Does this mean that your research is complete?

No, in fact one could even start again at the beginning. In 1965, when the first project was wrapped up and publicised in the canton of Grisons, we didn’t have dendrochronology, in which the age of wood can be determined by examining the differences in thickness of tree rings, and matching them to certain growth periods. It was only possible to match wooden buildings to certain time periods using construction features, ornamentation or inscriptions. If one were to examine the history of these houses with the research methods and instruments available today, one could definitely obtain further evolutionary insights and new relationships in rural life.


The “Swiss Farmhouse Research” project

Interest in farmhouses goes back to the 19th century, arising in connection with a romantic return to the ‘simple’ rural life and a growing national identity.

The “Swiss Farmhouse Research” project was initiated in 1948 by the Swiss Society for Folk Studies (SGV), financed by the cantons and since 1960 also by the Swiss National Science Foundation. The canton of Zug plays a special role, as for over 30 years it has provided the research project with infrastructure and archive space in the Office for Monument Preservation and Archaeology, part of the Swiss Department of the Interior. 1965 saw the publication of the first volume, “Graubünden” in the series “Die Bauernhäuser der Schweiz” (The farmhouses of Switzerland). The last of the series’ 39 volumes, “Solothurn”, will be published in December 2019 so that, by the end of this year, all the cantons of Switzerland will be featured in one or even several publications on the subject of farmhouses.

In former times, wood did not offer much leeway as a construction material. Proportions were dictated by the usable length of the trunk.

In 2019, Benno Furrer and his team will also be preparing for the farmhouse research archive’s relocation from Zug to the Ballenberg Open-Air Museum. The archive holds around 200,000 negatives (both black and white and colour), 24,000 slides and 10,000 plans of rural buildings from throughout Switzerland and Europe. It also contains property documentation (texts, images, drawings) from practically every community in Switzerland. Naturally, there are also digital photos of older images. A database provides detailed access to a specialist library with over 8,500 titles on rural buildings.

The history of a particular building not only fascinates researchers, it often provides the current owners and inhabitants with a sympathetic approach to handling it in its advanced age. The farmhouse research project provides a scientifically based contribution to our awareness of valuable cultural assets, particularly in the current discussion on the future of agriculture and the many vacant and unused local buildings. This research – often together with monument preservation – helps with questions of what is “typical” and which buildings can be modernised, and how, or given new uses, thereby creating added value while retaining their defining characteristics.