Madli Maruste: 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.

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Read more from Maja’s 2020 winter edition (No 99). Maja is on sale in Estonia, for international subscribers click here to order the magazine.

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).

1 Erelt, Pekka 2019 „Maareform – eestlaste kättemaksuseadus baltisakslastele“ Eesti Ekspress, 27.11