Rural Swiss architecture

Much use of timber and hefty roofs are dominant features of traditional houses. Use of timber made a lot of sense where wood was readily available, transportable and does not conduct the cold. The large, strong, overhanging roofs are necessary to hold the weight of snow and to prevent snow accumulating against the lower parts of the building.

The Swiss like to live near to their animals and many of the farmhouses were built under the same roof as the areas for the cattle and sheep are kept. A typical farm building in Vaud for example will have only about a quarter of the built area as living space and the remainder used for storage and animals.

The Berenese Oberland House, of the Jungfrau region, with a low, pitched roof and much ornamentation is most often seen in brochures and is the type of house that has made the “Swiss Chalet” world famous. Such houses are also scattered throughout Switzerland.

Shutters are very common and can be used to keep buildings cool in the height of summer, warmer in winter and protected from the elements when not in use. The shutters are often painted in the colours of the canton.

Another common feature of many rural buildings are facades where the ends of buildings are covered with square tiles set on the diagonal.

In the Valais many houses are built high with open side galleries joining the living area (wooden) to the kitchen area (masonry). Similar chalets are found in the Italian region and called “Torba”. The larger of these buildings were often used as apartment blocks with a different family living on each floor.

As Switzerland has successfully kept out of wars the damage to its buildings as been very limited and so you can see buildings of all periods going back at least 500 years. The biggest threat to Swiss buildings is fire and consequently the Swiss have many fire stations and a system whereby neighbouring farmers organised informally will rush to the scene of any fire nearby. The urban population contributes to fire protection measures through a small but universal levy raised through the tax system. Switzerland suffers from frequent electric storms with much lightening to that lightening conductors are essential on almost all buildings.

Modern Swiss buildings are very well built and the Swiss are of course well-known for their use of concrete. Until recently all new buildings had to include a nuclear bunker and where neighbours didn’t have one - perhaps because they lived in old buildings - the bunker had to be built large enough to accommodate them.

To see a selection of rural architecture you should go to the Swiss open air museum at Ballenberg. This is right in the centre of Switzerland near to Brienzwiler. It includes chalets and complete farmsteads. The buildings were brought from their area of origin and transported to Ballenberg where they have been brilliantly rebuilt. The museum has live demonstrations of traditional crafts including cheesemaking and pottery and is the location for a number of festivals (see www.ballenberg.ch for details)

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