Estonian farmstead—a compass pointing to both the past and the future

What can barn-dwelling architecture teach us today?

This year marks the 100th anniversary of passing the Estonian Land Reform Act — a revolutionary event that thoroughly reshaped the social, economic and hierarchical structures in Estonia. The decision to expropriate manor land and redistribute it to Estonian citizens flipped the erstwhile social power vertical upside down.1 The most desirable estates and country manors were given to generals and heroic soldiers for their distinguished service in the Estonian War of Independence, while simple peasants still had to buy out their new farms from the state over the following decades. Nevertheless, it was namely this event that marked the definitive end of serfdom. It was only with this Act that the peasant finally turned into a fully-fledged landlord, and farm household became a symbol of freedom and independence.

Unfortunately, this new order of things did not last for long and the incoming occupiers once again tried to dispossess and obliterate the identity of the indigenous people. By the time that farms were returned to their rightful owners, the culture had already been interrupted and knowledge of what a farm household truly consists in had been lost. By the latter, I do not mean knowledge of agriculture and animal husbandry, but namely of farms as the material bearers of indigenous Estonian identity. The problem was also aggravated by a modernist deference to architects — vernacular buildings were not much valued, as they had not been designed by professional architects. Another factor was the forceful propaganda for urbanisation, which managed to make commuter-district microflats with their modern-day amenities more attractive than old farmsteads with their ancient trees and smoke saunas.

Amidst a great neoliberal vertigo, people rushed to get loans to buy apartments in concrete blocks, mortgaging their old family farms, lands and forests in the process. Farm architecture was largely seen through nostalgic lens and restoration of old buildings was interpreted even as a romantic yearning for the past. However, a new global situation is bringing certain new, hitherto ignored meanings of old hand-built wooden and stone houses into the forefront.

1 – kiln-room, 2 – threshing floor, 3 – chambers, 4 – chaff-room, 5 – entrance hall, 6 – pantry, a – grain-trying poles, crossbars, b – joists, c – poles for drying firesticks, d – keris stove. (Source: Karl Tihane, “Eesti taluarhitektuur”)


Estonians have readily adopted a rather arrogant and disparaging attitude toward the way of life and living conditions of their ancestors, all the while not realising that these kinds of attitudes are characteristic of a colonist’s view of the colonised, and that similar patterns of attitudes can be observed wherever similar power relations are present. Subjugated peoples are very eager to reproduce the views that their subjugators have written and propagated about them, without stopping to ask whether these views paint an accurate picture of the life in the past, and whether the foreigners have even attempted to — or are even able to — gain an in-depth understanding of a culture that they consider inferior to their own.

According to jewellery artist and professor Kärt Summatavet2, such foreign eyes simply failed to apprehend the subtle details and nuances of a culture so alien to them, and neither were they initiated into the secret patterns and beliefs that ran through its oral and material lore.
Thus, foreign chronicles have fuelled the impression that indigenous peoples in the territory of Estonia were grimy bogeymen living in soot-covered barns, together with all their livestock. A more thorough study of historical sources naturally leads to a much more kaleidoscopic picture.

Karl Tihase3 makes it clear in his extensive monograph on Estonian farm architecture that contrary to popular belief, our ancestors did not dwell in kiln rooms with moist earthen floors — the first layer of earth was usually peeled off and replaced with a stamped layer of clay that became hard and pleasantly warm under the feet. The doorway of the kiln room was built with a high threshold in order to stop the influx of cold air and prevent the clay and limestone floors from moistening.

After threshing was finished in the autumn, kiln rooms were thoroughly cleaned and stoves were bleached with lime or clay. In Southern Estonia and on the islands, it was even common to lime the walls, all the way up to the drying poles under the ceiling, while the poles and joists themselves were ornamented with white stripes and marks. On the occasion of holidays or other celebrations, the walls and ceiling of the kiln room were decorated with white linen fabrics or sails in order to create a clean environment and festive mood. The room was further embellished with tree branches and fragrant flowers or herbs.

Professor Thomas Carter4, a researcher of American vernacular architecture, has emphasised that vernacular architecture can also shed light on class relations, if we pay attention to who lives where and what are the living conditions. Furthermore, a closer inspection of old houses can tell us about the gender roles of the time. What were the female and male zones in the building, corresponding to the respective duties and tasks?

Examining the rooms of an Estonian farmhouse likewise presents a detailed picture of the power relations in the family. What could be seen from the position of the husband; what was typically visible to the wife? For example, in the kiln room, the housewife would sit in the chair nearest to the hearth, while children would eat standing around the table. Initially, only the husband and wife would have a proper bed, while the older and younger family members would sleep on the stove or simple boards attached to the walls. Later on, as life became more prosperous, the kiln room was supplemented with sleeping chambers for other family members too. Servants, however, would continue to sleep in the kiln room.

Kaljo Põllu. “Thirst”, 1975. From the series “Kalivägi”. Source: Art Museum of Estonia


The location of the farmhouse and its auxiliary buildings were not chosen randomly at the old farms. Archaeologist Valter Lang5 has studied the ancient landscapes of Estonia and noted that already in the prehistoric period, homes were often built near sacred sites in order to partake in their protective magic. Sacred sites included stone graves and forest groves, but also immense veteran trees with deep roots and sky-high tops, connecting the underworld with the world above. Thus, contrary to what is generally believed about settlement farms, these kinds of nearby old trees were not planted after the farm had been founded amidst some empty field, but rather, the houses themselves were built in the protective proximity of some pre-existing mighty “pillars of the world”.

According to Karl Tihase, standard barn-dwelling proportions correspond to the golden ratio. The kiln room with its kiln — a chimneyless stove — was initially a windowless cube-shaped chamber with small holes in the walls for venting the smoke. This is clearly analogous to the setup of the traditional conical tent, which also had a door, fireplace and smoke hole at the top. Lennart Meri has written that the conical tent functioned as a model of the world for the Finno-Ugric peoples; one could gaze at the North Star through its smoke hole. In Hiiumaa, conical structures (called paargu) made of wooden rods were present at every farmyard and used as summer kitchens.

A farm household can be described in contemporary terms as a sort of creative district — after all, the farm itself, all of its furniture and produce was hand-made by various craftsmen. Wealthier farms had their own smitheries and windmills.

In his book about the vernacular architecture of Hiiumaa, printmaker and expert on Finno-Ugric culture Kaljo Põllu6 describes how every household item was made by hand, and how the design was often of high quality, especially if one considers that the creators had no formal training in arts. A sense of harmony and specific techniques were passed on from generation to generation and often varied from region to region, even on a smallish island such as Hiiumaa.

In poorer households, all the rooms with their distinct functions were bundled together under one roof. Rooms could be added over time as they were needed and could be afforded. In addition to the clean living chambers, the house could also fit a kitchen, chaff storage, kiln room, threshing floor, barn, sauna, woodshed and various auxiliary rooms. However, the layout of the rooms was never arbitrary, but punctually aligned with specific cardinal directions, taking into account the proprietary function of each room. The facade of a barn-dwelling always faced to the south, while pantry and sleeping chambers were situated on the northern side.

According to architectural historian Heiki Pärdi7, the barn-dwelling kiln speaks of Estonia’s location on the border between the Western and Eastern civilisations. Indeed, this kind of kiln or stove is currently unique to Estonia and is regarded an even more significant monument than the barn-dwelling itself, since few of such kilns remain. In the 1960s, many were dismantled from the kiln rooms — amidst the rush to modernise, these old piles of stone were not appreciated anymore. Many proud farmers eventually replaced them with fashionable electric fireplaces.

Kaljo Põllu. “Estonian landscape”, 1973. Source: Art Museum of Estonia


Another crucial aspect was how the house was placed with respect to the surrounding landscape and cardinal directions in order to adjust it to specific climate conditions. Architect Susanne Brorson8, who studied in the London AA School of Architecture, but now lives on a small Danish island, is currently working on a dissertation about the climate adaptiveness of vernacular architecture, in which she attempts to create a model for utilising the ancient knowledge in a contemporary context. The main message of Brorson’s presentation at the Tallinn Centre of Rural Architecture in September 2019 was that architects and engineers should use old architectural heritage as an example of how to design truly economical and sustainable houses.

The average lifespan of a modern building is merely fifty years, while well-kept old farmhouses remain liveable even a hundred or hundred and fifty years later, making them exceptionally environment-friendly. Brorson holds that public farmstead complexes such as the Open Air Museum should be turned from museums into competence centres for architects, engineers, restorers and people working on their own homes. By analysing our architectural heritage, we can learn to build houses that take into account the peculiarities of the landscape, cardinal directions, properties of wood, regional climate and other similar factors. According to Brorson, contemporary architects are losing this kind of knowledge, because vernacular architecture has not been considered prestigious enough to study it in more depth.

I wholeheartedly agree with this exceptional suggestion that we are in need of a paradigm shift when it comes to heritage building and heritage culture more broadly. So far, heritage culture has been regarded with a certain irreverence  — after the Industrial Revolution, the whole world converted to a faith in progress, and everything old would be enthusiastically passed into the dustbin of history, especially if it lacked the quality label of being an antiquity.

Nowadays, the common mentality makes people wonder — why bother with restoring an old farm when it’s much easier and usually cheaper to build a new house? Even more convenient would be to order a prefabricated home straight from a factory! The contemporary man regards the old farmhouse as a depreciated hovel, because he has lost the ability to decipher the (hi)story that such a place bears. Old tools are not recognised anymore and old signs scraped into chest lids remain unintelligible.

Folk art and folk architecture in colonised territories (including, for most of its history, our very own Terra Mariana) were not regarded as noble enough to merit perpetuation in history, as the artists had not received a classical education. The history of art and architecture has largely excluded the so-called others — the period up to the 20th century is dominated by upper class men.

Given that Susanne Brorson has not yet been able to study Estonian farm architecture in specific, let us now take a look at some of its peculiarities. Barn-dwelling is the only truly unique Estonian contribution to the architectural history of the world, for this type of building was common only in the territories of contemporary Estonia and Northern Latvia. Today, most of the barn-dwellings in Northern Latvia have been lost and Estonia remains the only place in the world where one can witness this type of house.

On a hilly terrain, farm buildings were often placed on the southern side of a hill to protect them from cold winds. Eaves of the roof extended quite far to protect the building from rain and snow — and also from overly intense sunlight, although the latter was probably not an urgent issue in a place like Estonia. The northern side of an Estonian farmyard was usually lined with a thick spruce hedge, while the southern facade was facing towards flowerbeds and lawn.

Old farm architecture is characterised by large hip roofs that were thatched with straw or reed. In order to secure the building against weather effects, the roof was built to withstand strong winds, heavy rain and snow, and was often at least twice as high as the visible part of the walls. The optimal angle of reed roofs was 45 degrees or even more. Roofs were always covered with natural materials suitable for our weather conditions.

According to thatched roof expert Hardi Rajas9, straw roofs in the inland regions were particularly recyclable — when the winter happened to be long and the household ran out of fodder, these roofs were fed to animals. It was a sort of two-in-one deal: the straw functioned both as stored animal feed and roof covering.

In order to improve the insulation of windows, reed mats were hung on the outer side. The mats were lowered for the night and then rolled back up and fixed with a string in the morning. This method was especially common in the coastal areas that had to face freezing winds from the sea.

In many farms on the shores of the Baltic Sea, the barn was built in the middle of the house and then surrounded by living chambers, since livestock also emanated warmth and thus functioned as a sort of heater. For the same reason, smaller animals were allowed into the kiln room.
Barn-dwelling and other old farm buildings are extremely environment-friendly and have a very small ecological footprint. Local building materials, high carbon storage, local workforce, reuse of materials and long lifespan are the main principles that contribute to the environmental sustainability of farm architecture.


Since Estonia regained its independence, there have been all kinds of subsidies from the state and the European Union to support private owners in restoring manor architecture, but only in 2018 did the National Heritage Board open its first round of applications for support to restore farm architecture. Now, what does this suggest? Whose story is considered more worthwhile to tell? Whose heritage is being valued?

If our own state considers it more important to restore the erstwhile headquarters of a slave economy, then we should not be surprised when people flock to such places for their marriage ceremonies. As long as Estonians do not know and respect their pre-national heritage, we remain in the clutches of a colonial understanding of ourselves and are prone to go along with politicised nationalism. True potential lies in the knowledge that predates the signing of the Manifesto to the Peoples of Estonia — knowledge that has not been compressed into a national mould by any political power, but has simply passed on from generation to generation through oral and material lore, according to the universal principles of harmony.

Open air museums are striving to conserve the way of life of indigenous peoples who long stood on the bottom rung of the social ladder. But instead of busing in groups of yawning schoolchildren who feel little connection to wooden spoons and dark rooms, these farm museums should be developed into educational centres that teach us how to cope with the new climate situation through traditional technologies and climate-adaptive building solutions. This would be something that today’s youngsters who spend their Fridays protesting on the street could already passionately relate to.

MADLI MARUSTE is an architectural semiotician and urban sociologist who is currently renovating a barn-dwelling in Hiiumaa.

HEADER: Kaljo Põllu, “The Moon Rainbow”, 1989. From the series „Kalivägi”. (Source: Art Museum of Estonia).
PUBLISHED: Maja 99 (winter 2020) with main topic Rural Insights

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