Despite its vulnerability to fire, damp and rot, wood is a durable material that, over time, can become almost as hard as steel. From medieval barns to 17th-century log churches, timber structures have survived across Northern Europe over centuries.
Gavin Stamp, Sunday, 1st April 2012
In March 1942, the old Hanseatic city of Lübeck on the Baltic was largely destroyed by firebombs in an attack by the Royal Air Force which provoked the retaliatory German Baedecker Raids on historic English cities. Lübeck, with its medieval churches and streets of half-timbered houses, had been chosen as an easy target by Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris as it ‘was built more like a fire-lighter than a human habitation’ and would burn well. It did – just as the timber-framed houses in the old City of London had during the Great Fire of 1666.
Wood burns. It might therefore seem to be an ephemeral building material, but, in fact – unless set on fire by accident or design – timber constructions can survive for centuries. Indeed, recent history suggests that they have a much longer useful life than reinforced concrete. Oak, in particular, can become almost as hard as steel over time and very slow to burn. Providing the timber is protected from damp and rot, the lifetime of wooden structures can be measured in centuries rather than decades.
That astonishing feat of spatial and structural imagination, the vaulted roof and lantern of the Octagon of Ely Cathedral, is made of timber. Here, the original colossal oak beams, some over 60 feet long and raised high above the masonry walls and piers, have done their work for almost seven centuries. Countless medieval timber roof structures in cathedrals and churches survive, albeit restored, elsewhere, while at Greensted in Essex is that miraculous survival, a log church with its walls of split oak logs which would seem to have been built around the time of the Norman Conquest.
Then there are the medieval timber barns, those awesome utilitarian structures which have managed to survive because soundly constructed and, until comparatively recently, useful. One of the best is at Harmondsworth near Heathrow Airport in West London, recently rescued by English Heritage after years of neglect (Fig. 2). Here, black weatherboarded walls below the huge unbroken pitched roof surround a timber structure almost six centuries old with massive posts separating aisles from a ‘nave’.
Given the longevity of such structures combined with the perennial English suburban taste for neo-Tudor half-timber, perhaps it is surprising that there are not modern timber structures. In fact there are. Some modern houses have timber frames, but these use pine: England’s oak forests which provided the great beams needed for, say, the Ely Octagon were long ago decimated for shipbuilding. There are some impressive modern timber buildings, however, such as the new Globe Theatre, built with oak timbers by Theo Crosby in the 1990s very much as it would have been in Shakespeare’s time.
Rather more imaginative, perhaps, are the creations of Imre Makovecz (1935–2011), the Hungarian architect who, during the dark days of Communism, provided a strange alternative to drab Modernism with an eccentric and symbolic timber architecture which looked back to the Romantic Nationalism of the early 20th century. He came to wider attention with his exotic Hungarian Pavilion at the 1992 Expo in Seville, a zoomorphic wooden structure wonderfully out of its time. Makovecz’s work drew, of course, on folk traditions in archi-tecture, above all in church buildings. In England, timber churches are comparatively rare but in Northern Europe they are, or were, more common. Many are extraordinary in form. Famously, there are the remarkable log churches with painted interiors from the 17th and 18th centuries to be found in the Maramureş district of Northern Transylvania, now in Romania but once part of historic Hungary. Then there are the medieval stave churches of Norway, so called from the Viking name for a timber post. All over Northern Europe, early churches were built of timber. In Norway alone there were once over a thousand of them, with multiple pitched roofs, strange spires and grotesque carved ornament. Today only 28 stand, the rest having fallen victim to fire, religious fanaticism or rural depopulation. Fortunately, by nature of their construction, such churches (and other rural timber structures), can be deconstructed and re-erected in an open-air museum or skansen (the name deriving from the one in Stockholm). The first such was that opened in 1881 in Norway; there is also one in Bucharest where some of those Transylvanian churches are preserved.
Thanks in part to the post-war establishment of an open-air museum at Kizhi, where 87 wooden buildings are assembled around two original 18th-century wooden churches with astonishing super-structures of timber onion domes (Fig. 3), some of the old wooden churches of European Russia have managed to survive. In the remote districts of Karelia and Archangel between St Petersburg and the White Sea are the least known – and most threatened – of all the wooden churches of Europe (Fig. 1). Now, with the publication of Richard Davies and Matilda Moreton’s magnificent and absorbing Wooden Churches: Travelling in the Russian North (White Sea Publishing), these fantastic buildings may become better appreciated before it is too late. Mostly dating from the 18th century, some with characteristic onion domes, some with spires and some with detached bell towers, these buildings show what wonderful architectural forms can be made out of simple pine logs.
‘Wooden architecture, the most original and most unique [sic] part of the cultural heritage of Russia, is on the verge of total extinction,’ writes Mikhail Milchik, vice-director of the St Petersburg Research Institute of Restoration. Once there were many thousands of such churches – since the 1917 Revolution, however, some 80 per cent of them have disappeared. Some have just decayed and collapsed; some caught fire and many perished in the Second World War. Many more fell victim to the ruthless campaigns against religion conducted by Stalin and Khrushchev, and their steady disappearance was exacerbated by collectivisation and rural de-population. In the last days of the Soviet system, the remaining churches began to be regarded and cared for as national monuments, so it is depressing to learn that the rate of destruction has accelerated since 1989.
The many reasons for the attrition of these precious timber buildings, writes Professor Milchik, includes the ‘absence of permanent support for historic monuments; funding by the miserly government of restoration and preventative work; and finally, and possibly the most important reason, is the almost total indifference towards the fate of the national cultural heritage, that reigns in Russian society, from the top to the bottom.’ War would seem to be the least of the threats to the historic wooden architecture of Europe.
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