Further – Switzerland

In this section you can find a survey of vernacular timber building culture, references to regional building styles and traditions, information on museums, organisations’, and research centres’, etc. involved in traditional building culture.

Click through to the main themes as follows:

Introductory Overview
Vernacular and traditional timber building culture
Regional vernacular and traditional timber building
Bridges
Museums
Further information and research on traditional building culture

Vernacular and traditional timber building culture

Eglihaus – arichly decorated timber framed and half-timbered (Fachwerk) building in Hombrechtikon  Photo – Roland ZH Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0

Introductory Overview

Just as the country acts as an Alpine continental crossroads, so Switzerland’s traditional building culture is also a reflection of the confluence of neighbouring countries and regional Swiss influence. This is as much the case for the many classical and traditional architectural styles represented; Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque etc., as it is for vernacular building culture, even if their expression doesn’t overlap. Stone, brick and glass, alongside wood in places, are part of the historical construction palette of buildings. Thus, Romanesque styles can be traced back to Lombardy in present day Italy, Burgundy (today to the west in France), and the Germanic countries (to the north), while Gothic architecture arrived primarily from present day France, and Renaissance from what is known today as Northern Italy.

If most of these buildings; cathedrals, churches and other ecclesiastical structures, alongside castles, palaces and country houses for the ruling classes, were primarily not constructed out of timber, there were some early castles in northern Switzerland constructed from timber, bearing the influence of Germanic builders. Likewise, a variety of church roof structures across the country as well as the talismanic exemplar of the Grubenmann brothers’ bridges in and around North Eastern Switzerland.

Influences on Swiss vernacular building cultures, primarily farming, village, and other rural buildings and structures, are equally diverse, although common to all is the impact of provenance: geography, immediate climate, availability of materials, and local traditions. The obvious point is that timber buildings and structures flourished where there were forests and good enough quality trees to use for building with. This said, there are rich regional wood based vernacular building cultures across many different parts of Switzerland.

Vernacular and traditional timber building culture

Eglihaus – arichly decorated timber framed and half-timbered (Fachwerk) building in Hombrechtikon  Photo – Roland ZH Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0

There is a diverse spectrum of timber buildings in Switzerland, although primarily found only in buildings from the 18th century. Prior to the 1700s, the predominantly rural vernacular tradition was quite similar across different regions and geographies. In the two hundred years since, this diversity narrowed again as construction techniques became more uniform. The contrasts are best illustrated in farmhouses, although given the rural background of vernacular building culture, there are many different farm buildings alongside the central farmhouse, generally built from wood, and an individual farm could comprise up to 20 or 30 smaller buildings. On many higher altitude dairy farms there would be hillside shacks and hay storage racks at different elevations, small shelters, and also the Stöckli, half-farmhouse, half-barns, which are found across Switzerland. An advanced level of wood working skills and knowledge was an assumed part of rural culture, knowledge of which trees would be right for cutting and when, to be used carefully and efficiently so there was neither waste nor need for timbers to be replaced, ideally, for hundreds of years.

In the forested and rainy north, wooden log buildings predominated, often with deep overhanging roofs known as Klebedach. Similar farmhouse log buildings are also found further into the Bernese Central Plateau and the Bernese Oberland, although with decorative facades, different interiors and often on stone foundations. By contrast, in the Western Jura mountain region buildings were primarily built from stone. Likewise, further south in Italianate Ticino, geography again determined building style and form, often characterised by small compact villages, with isolated but sprawling stone and wood farmsteads in the south, and more vertical stacked buildings sitting on the constrained mountainside valleys of the north. Buildings were also primarily made from wood in the central Alpine foothills, although developing stylistically somewhat differently to those found on the Bernese Plateau. In the north-east, neighbouring the Rhein and the Rheintal Valley, the influence of German wooden building traditions spread across the region. In eastern Switzerland one often sees half-timbered houses while further to the south east, farmhouses in the Engadin were constructed with massive stone walls often covered in sgraffito decoration, with the barn and house connected by a large porch or antechambers, known as a ‘sulèr’.  In the south-west of Valais, the arrival of the German speaking Walser people in the 13th century, introduced wood to the hitherto stone built French speaking villages. Over the next centuries there was a mixing and fusion of styles and traditions of these Valais building traditions.

Regional vernacular and traditional timber building

Photo by By Pmau – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikipedia

By region

North and Bernese Central Plateau

Plentiful forests in the more northerly parts of the central Bernese plateau meant that all-purpose farm buildings, integrated as a home for the farmer’s family with stalls for farm animals, fodder and storage close by under the same roof, were well developed as a building tradition by the 15th century and continued to evolve through the next centuries. By the 16th century, shallow shingle roofs began to give way to steeper tiled roofs, and a further three centuries later the traditional thatch roofs also began to disappear, with the coming of industrial materials and the insurance industry. 

Entlebuch farmhouses found in Lucerne canton’s Entlebuch region along the Emmental valley, these farmhouses displayed staggered façades, often with decorative carved balconies. The farmhouses also featured long, hipped roofs covering the living area, threshing floor and stable, and often include a gabled arch, called a ‘ründe’.The interior layout included a parlour at the front, with a kitchen and shed to the rear, and bedrooms on the upper floor, while part of the farm’s workspace would jut out over both floors. Decorative facades were also a part of building traditions in Bernese Oberland. The style emerged in the 1750’s and continued over the next century.

North East and East

Appenzell, St Gallen, Zurich – Vernacular timber building culture along the northerly Rhein and Bodensee border cantons is characterised by half-timbered framing which began to appear in the late middle ages before spreading into eastern Central Plateau cantons, the building style having migrated south from the German principalities.

Timber framed and half-timbered ‘fachwerk’ buildings became the default building style until the late 18th and early19th centuries, although there were also variations, primarily horizontal and stacked plank buildings, infilling the timber frame where wattle and daub was usually used.

The Girsbergerhaus in Stammheim dates back to 1422 and is the oldest known half-timbered Fachwerk house in rural Switzerland.

The Girbergerhaus – Photo – Joachim Kohler Bremen/Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 4.0 

The Alpine Foothills

Photo –Virginia Teager/Wikimedia/ CC BY 2.0.

Alpine dairy farming, as one of the main sources of livelihoods in the Alpine foothills, led to free standing farmhouses in the 13th century and after, and unlike byre-dwellings, separated from barns and other farm buildings. The buildings were simple block timber frame structures. The gable ends often featured windows with large overhanging eaves and remained much the same up until the 19th century. The styles overlapped, and both byre-dwellings and separate farmhouses can be found together in villages across the Swiss Plateau.

Photo – Sandstein/ Wikipedia  – CC BY-SA 3.0

Valais– in the south-west French speaking Valais, the region maintained a stone-centric building culture up until the 13th century, when the Germanic Walser people began moving into the upper reaches of the long Valais valley, before spreading into different parts of today’s Switzerland. As a result, their name gradually became associated with the region. The Walser’s brought wooden building knowhow and skills, and specifically squared beam, rather than half or fully framed timber buildings, which are otherwise almost completely absent from the country. Cross-fertilisations developed with the older French-speaking built tradition in certain parts of Valais, and particular building styles such as in Val d’Illiez, with high roof ridge canopy overhangs projected out of buildings of the building facade.

It is generally considered that the Walser’s didn’t develop a specific building style and form, rather their farm and village buildings were more influenced by external geographic, climatic, and material circumstances.

Walserhuus in Warth – Photo care of the Walser Alps project

By the mid-16th century, Walser houses could be identified by various features including ceiling joists running at right angles to the ridge-pole, decorative carved friezes, visible old window jambs adjoining enlarged windows, and beam ends protruding from morticed block construction. An example of this is the 1568 late medieval Blatten farmhouse from Lötschental valley in Valais, restored and is visitable these days at the Ballenberg Open Air Museum – see also below in museum section.

See also the AHB Biel school Building renovation in Upper Valais – VetaNova (in German) – research into improving conservation and repair processes of historic timber-framed buildings in Valais canton, a two year collaborative research project with carpentry, architectural, and local municipality on making renovation processes more efficient and reliable.

The canton is also known for its widespread number of historical watermills and waterwheels; nearly a 1000 were identified in research by the late Professor Paul-Louis Pelet, as documented in his book: By the Force of Water – the Wood Turbine Wheels of Valais(A la force de L’eau – Les Turbines des Bois du Valais) 1998.

A Valais waterwheel – Photo – Ballenberg Open Air Museum

Ticino

Part of the Swiss Confederation since the 15th century Ticino’s built environment is similar to Northern Italy. Divided into north and south, in Ticino’s Northern Alpine regions – with elevations reaching 1500 meters above sea level – its Swiss rulers introduced massive wooden (log) constructions. Roofs are generally comprised of stone, sitting on tree trunk log frames for the steep valley mountain sides.

In Southern Ticino the built environment reflects proximity to bordering Italian Lombardy. Stone, often gneiss, is the principal material, although roofs are an amalgam of stone slabs on top of a tree trunk frames, with balconies and balustrades also made from wood.

A helpful 2018 paper by Barbara Gherri and Eva Coisson on Alpine region timber construction (focused on Northern Italy) is Tabià renovation for alpine region in Italy. Traditional solution and innovative technologies integration.

Graubünden/Grisons

Historically, another canton which developed a massive wood log construction tradition in the aftermath of the thirty years war (1618-1639). Buildings in Graubünden (Grisons) were rebuilt in stone, including stone byre-dwellings in the Engadin, though still with wooden sections. There are a mixture of stone and timber farm and village buildings in different parts of the country’s largest canton, with stone farmhouse walls in the Engadin becoming particularly deep.

Bridges

The Grubenmann Bridge over the river Glatt, in canton Zürich – Photo –  Paebi Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 3.0

The Grubenmann Brothers – a family of master builders

The Grubenmann brothers – among the engineering fraternity the Grubenmann brothers are Switzerland’s most celebrated historical engineering family. Ulrich Grubenmann (1668-1736) and his three sons, Jakob (1694-1758), Johannes (1707-1771), and Hans Ulrich (1709-1783) became known for their carpentry and civil engineering expertise and are particularly revered for their ground-breaking approaches to timber bridge construction, although the brothers also built churches and their spires.

Schaffhausen bridge – Drawing – Zeughaus Teufen/Grubenmann Museum

Living in the northern Appenzell canton town of Teufen, the brothers designed and built a series of remarkable wooden bridge structures, exploiting new ways of working with trusses and true arches, which resulted in a series of unparalleled bridges in northern Switzerland.  These included a double span bridge in Schaffhausen of 52 and 60 metres, and a 60 m span bridge in Wettingen – crossing the river Limmat – and the first bridge to apply an arch to a wooden bridge using heavy oak beams connected with iron straps. Both of these structures did not survive the 1799 war between neighbouring France and Austria, during which they were burnt down. For a complete list of the Grubenmann family’s bridges see here.

For further information see the Grubenmann Museum at the Zeughaus Teufen and see also below.

The principal surviving bridges are the Rümlangbrücke, in Oberglatt, which covers a span of 27.5 m, the bridge at Hundwilertobel, which reaches 30 m, and the Kubelbrücke in Herisau again 30 metres in length.

Further – Annular Unstructured 10 features an in-depth essay on the bridges of the Grubenmann brothers by engineer Jurg Conzett.

The Kapellbrücke in Lucerne – Photo  Simon Koopmann/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 2.5

The Kapellbrücke (Chapel Bridge), Lucerne

One of the oldest covered timber bridges in the world was first built in 1333 and remains much loved, albeit in present day as primarily a tourist site, found in the central Swiss city of Lucerne. Much of the Kapellbrücke has been rebuilt over the centuries but remains a striking historical structure and is still in use. Comprised primarily of oak piles forced into the relatively shallow bed of the river Reuss below, with additional, again oak, cross-girders, to support the twenty-six span sections of the main bridge. Each span covers 7.65 metres, making together a total span of 204 m, considerably shorter than the original 1333 bridge, which measured 285 m.

Museums and Open-Air Museums

Photo – Ballenberg Open Air Museum

Ballenberg Open Air Museum

The Tentlingen farmhouse and threshing barn originally from near Fribourg, in Western Switzerland – Photos – this section from the Ballenberg Museum

Switzerland’s only open-air museum, and opened comparatively recently just over fifty years ago, in 1978. The museum is close to Brienz in the Bernese Oberland region, and both town and region are the centre of wood carving traditions in Switzerland.

The museum contains around one hundred and ten conserved buildings, the majority of the contrasting regions being represented across different dedicated parts of the museum’s 66 hectare grounds. Divided into twelve regional groupings and a further Alpine economic section, the majority – though not all – of these feature timber buildings from different periods in the Swiss Federation’s history. They include: Central, Bernese and Eastern Midlands – these groupings of buildings include two multi-purpose labourer’s timber framed houses from the Swiss central heartlands, each with deep thatch roofs, from Leutwil and Oberentfelden – dating from the early 1800s and the 1600s respectively. In the Bernese Central Plateau section there are examples of 18th and 19th century farmhouses, alongside a collection of barns and other farm buildings, including an Emmental cheese storehouse. A working sawmill from Rafz in the Eastern midlands, adjoining a granary and dating from the 1840s – originally built on a quarry – continues to be powered by a waterwheel.

The Leutwil and Oberentfelden labourers’ cottages (left) and Rafz Sawmill (centre and right) – Ballenberg Museum

The 18th century Madiswil farmhouse includes the farming families’ living quarters and cattle stalls, along with a threshing floor. The roofs timber members and frame remain visible in the building with laths carried by rafters, as well as the shingles of the outer building on the external skin.

Western Switzerland – the timber farmhouseeincludes a sizeable threshing stall and floor extension from the main farmhouse building. The farmhouse, originally from Tentlingen, near Fribourg, dates from the 16th century. A smaller structure, a granary from Vaud, includes – in miniature – steep pitched roofs and semi-circular decorative motifs on the door, which echo elements on gothic barns further north, near Fribourg and Berne.

Detail and full image of the miniature granary, Western Switzerland – Photo – Ballenberg Museum

The south, south east and eastern Switzerland – this grouping includes buildings from across the south and eastern parts of Switzerland including Ticino and Valais.

Ticino raised house from the 16th century and below an example of the regional grain drying racks (above and below) – Photos – Ballenberg Museum

Ticino – an early 16th century house from Malvaglia/Serravalle in Ticino, where a log construction sits on hillside stilts and a masonry foundation is strengthened with timber posts. Other farm buildings and structures are also presented, the majority of which reveal stone as a core material, although other smaller and simpler farming structures are made from wood, such as hillside grain drying racks.

Valais – throughout the Rhone Valley, square timber is the principal timber building approach used, while half-timber construction is almost completely absent, with square timber construction the principal construction found. The museum contains a series of farm buildings from Blatten village in the Lötschen valley profiling the half-timber constructions that took root in the region.

Details of the Blatten House, with visible old window jambs adjoining enlarged windows and interior ceiling decoration with date cut into the woodwork – Photos – Ballenberg Museum

In addition, Ballenberg Open Air Museum maintains a number of permanent exhibitions, an expansive range of handcrafts, including wood-carving, shingle-making, sawing (in the Rafz saw-mill), and the craft of the wainwright, which were all part of daily life and livelihoods in the past, plus a crafts database (in German).

A series of short films about the past and present lives of buildings and the geographical places they came from can be found here.

The museum is also the site of the Swiss Farmhouse Research project – see below.

The SchwyzerHaus Centre (left) – sketch – and the reconstructed house (right) – Photo – the Morgarten Project

SchwyzerHaus Centre– is considered the oldest-known extant timber building in Europe – described on its website as a ‘mundane residential building’ – and dates, according to dendochronological testing, from around 1170. It is today a visitor centre, and was reconstructed and moved in 2015, as part of the Morgarten Project to Schornen am Morgarten, as part of a cultural history centre, brought about by the level of decay in the original timber structure.

Models of the Grubenmann Brothers Schaffhausen bridge (above and below) – Photos – Zeughausen Teufen

The Grubenmann Museum – dedicated to the family of master builders, can be found within the walls of the Zeughaus Teufen. A regional canton museum in the small Appenzell town where the Grubenmann brothers were born and spent their lives.

The Grubenmann Museum’s model attic

The museum details the origins, lives, and later history of the master builder family, featuring models of the Grubenmann brothers’ most revered bridges, in Schaffhausen and Wettingen, a number of other bridges, as well as their church structures and other engineering feats. There are also sections on the engineering tools and technologies that were used. Videos and other visual material also present the story. There have been various collaborations with architecture and engineering schools, including for instance, Ibois’ Project Grubenmann through 2016 and 2017.

Engadine Museum, St Moritz, one of the interior displays – Photo – Engadine Museum

The Engadin Museum – situated in St Moritz, Graubünden. Although primarily focused on the life and culture of the Engadin region – including a display of 21 interiors – the museum also features elements of the historical and vernacular building culture, for instance a current exhibition features the influence of the Hartmann dynasty, who helped shape both the building culture and landscape of Graubünden over the course of three generations, and in particular the Engadin.

The three Wauwilermoos stilt building dwellings – Photo – Wauwil Centre

Wauwilersee – the Wauwilermoos pile dwelling settlement centre

The Wauwilersee centre – an open air ‘learning path’ and UNESCO site are a series of three reconstructed pile dwellings dating from 4400 BC. First uncovered after the Wauwilersee was drained in the 1840s, along with further archaeological sites, including the Egolzwil Neolithic village which was discovered in 1929, the settlement makes for what is considered one of the best-preserved Neolithic archaeological sites in the country and of the Egolzwil culture. There are three stilt buildings or pile dwellings, an excavation tent, a hunters’ tent, as well as an information pavilion, built from ash, oak and alder, with thatch pitch roofs and clay walls. The archaeological learning path and the pile dwelling settlement can be visited freely without a guide. The stilt houses and the hunters’ tent are accessible with a guided tour.

Further information and research on traditional building culture

Swiss Society for Folk Studies – Schweizerische Gesellschaft fur Volkskunde SSFS/SGV) – founded in 1896, is the main organisation involved in the study, research, and documenting of Swiss folk culture. As part of these aims the SSFS includes a focus on vernacular and ‘folk’ building culture, including the broad and historical rural vernacular wood construction culture. The organisation holds extensive historical materials including a photo archive (in German) and other material.

Photo – Swiss Farmhouse Research

Swiss Farmhouse Research project– started in 1948 by the Swiss Society for Folk Studies (SGV.) Funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation and regional cantons, the research project was moved from Zug to the Ballenberg Open Air Museum in 2019. The projects archive now includes approximately 200,000 negatives, 24,000 slides and 10,000 plans of rural buildings plus a considerable collection of other documentation (texts, images, drawings). The database provides detailed access to a specialist library with over 8,500 titles on rural buildings.

The museum’s farmhouse research also includes the Swiss Farmhouse research archive (in German).

Publications on every canton are available on farmhouse related subject matter.

An interview with the Swiss Farmhouse Project’s director, Benno Furrer, can be found here.

Recent research – as part of this research the museum initiative investigated over thirty houses in the Lötschen valley. Through dendrochronological dating they uncovered that the houses originated between 1410 and 1530, with both their antiquity and the sheer number of buildings an unexpected outcome. Features found in the buildings included ceiling joists running at right angles to the ridgepole, old window jambs showing alongside enlarged window openings – the format of earlier windows – and irregular protrusion of the beam ends made from morticed block construction. See here for more details regarding the Blatten house.

See also the BFL/AHB research – Building renovation in Upper Valais – VetaNova (in German)

The Walser Alps project – a completed EU funded cultural research project includes a focus on Walser building methods, and asks the question of whether there was a distinctive Walser architectural style

Living Traditions in Switzerland – a section of the Federal Office of Culture (FOC) charged with responsibility for the country’s heritage and traditions. An Information page provides news and updates. The Living Traditions Section includes a variety of resources, including a ‘List of Living Traditions’ website, with further information on various wood related traditions, such as Shingle making, Alpine wood carving, and the Brienz wood carving traditions.

The National Centre for Cultural Heritage (NIKE) – is the principal centre for the country’s cultural heritage. This spans archaeological sites, monuments, historical sites, and intact cultural landscapes.

There are approximately 92,000 members and 39 regional professional associations, with work ranging from providing specialist expertise at the Federal Governmental level, to organising cultural heritage events at the local and European levels. Its broader work, vernacular and historical buildings, is a further significant strand.

ETH Zurich

Institute of Building Archaeology and Construction History – the institute’s historical focus is on architecture and building from the Renaissance (early 15th century) up to the early 20th century, including a focus on vernacular and traditional timber building culture and technology.

Development of the wide-span wooden roof in Northern and Central Switzerland 1600-1850 – is the principal relevant research investigating the development of wide-span church roofs in northern and central Switzerland in the early modern period, covering over 120 church roof structures being undertaken by Jasmin Schafter – See Ms Schafer here.

The Chair of Structural Design – is involved in research into the historical early application of glue laminated timber in Switzerland.

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