The Wooden Architecture of Northern Europe - An Extract

Discover the background to John Hilling's book in this extract from the Preface of The Wooden Architecture of Northern Europe...

Grimsgard loft, from Nes, Hallingdal, Norway


My aim in writing this book has been to explore and focus attention on the wealth of wooden architecture that exists in the northernmost part of Europe, the great Fennoscandian peninsula that includes Finland, Norway and Sweden, together with the Russian Republic of Karelia and, in the far north-east, the sub-peninsula of Kola (or Murmansk Oblast). In times past virtually the whole of the region was dominated by coniferous forest and it retained a largely rural society until well into the 20th century.

For centuries the people of Fennoscandia were intimately related to the forest; it was where they lived and worked, and found the raw materials to construct their buildings and furniture. Wood was seen as a living material, so that eventually it became permeated with myth and folklore. Today, the region retains a close relationship with wood as it, in the words of Henry Plummer, ‘continues to resonate in the Nordic soul’. Indeed, it would be true to say – as Bo Lindberg once commented on Finnish art – that ‘no single source of material wealth has contributed more to [Fennoscandian] art and culture than the forests’.



For various, mainly political, reasons it has become rare for a study of this nature to include Russian Karelia and Kola along with their Scandinavian and Finnish counterparts, despite them being integral parts of the Fennoscandian land mass. Karelia was, in fact, divided between the Duchy of Finland and the Olonets province of Russia during the 19th century. I have included Karelia and Kola as they were subject to similar climatic and floristic conditions over the centuries as were their western neighbours; conditions that, to a large extent, influenced the way buildings were constructed and designed throughout that period.


A bent-pole cot (left) and wooden storehouse (right)
at Ankarede church village, Sweden 


For a long time the significance of wooden buildings in the story of architecture was largely ignored. This was due, in part, to the ongoing process of gradual replacement of wooden buildings by masonry buildings, the latter often seen as more permanent. Permanence, however, is relative, and many churches in Fennoscandia have survived for centuries. Apart from that, it was generally quicker to replace a wooden building, than to build a new masonry structure.

This book has had a long gestation. It was begun more than twenty years ago with research, numerous visits to various parts of Fennoscandia, including many open-air museums, and preliminary writing, before being put aside due to other demands and then forgotten. A few years ago I began again, reorganising from scratch, revising and re-writing everything with up-to-date information, and obtaining a better collection of illustrations.

John Hilling's 'The Wooden Architecture of Northern Europe: From the Viking Era to the 20th Century' will be published on 20th June. Pre-order your copy HERE.