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Nostalgia of an old log house

The Nostalgia of an old Log House

1. Experience in and around a Log House – Phenomenology through Nostalgia (or vice versa)

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Approaching the Kärsämäki Church on a rainy day in mid-September, the journey was meditating. Along the wooden path, through a bell tower, the shingles gradually appeared in vision. The frozen traces of flowing wooden tar seemed to blend with the moving rain drops, giving a calm smell to welcome the visitors. The choir was practicing for an upcoming wedding at the time. Drizzling rain sprinkled on the shingles, adding more gently dancing notes to the music.

A palette of materials were composed in a way that each of them spoke their own language but had a conversation to the rest. Walls were layered to create the hallway (svalgang). Logs were stacked one on top of another to form the wall. The end of each log were meeting the end of the other log at the corner of the wall. The moment of interlocking seemed simple and natural, making a magical pattern of both resemblance and juxtaposition.

It took a few more steps in order to turn towards the entrance. The open space inside is quaint and tranquil. The uneven and organic gaps between the logs seemed like a delicate sketch about horizontality. These slightly squiggly lines broke down the vertical space into intimate intervals, filtering out light coming from the top opening. The soul of the church must have been rested at that intricate meeting point of the eight roof beams above, an impressive piece of craftsmanship reflecting complexity as well as elegance.

These were a set of memories I had from visiting The Shingle Church in Finland four months ago. Written on a rainy Bergen day in the new year, they evoked a vivid yet subtle emotion named nostalgia, “memory of the senses”. On the other hand, when visiting the site, the atmosphere inside the church itself was nostalgic. In the text above, there are hardly any factual or historical descriptions yet the architectural quality of the place could still be easily communicated. As mentioned by Kitson and McHugh, bodily attentiveness sometimes could surpass architectural and historical accuracy. It is precisely the “amorphous and sensual qualities of nostalgia that make it a propulsive force in dwelling.” Nostalgia lies in the roughness of texture, the brightness of light, the weight of the door, and an excess engendered through intimacy and nearness. Among today’s industrialised timber houses that seem all the same around the world, we have lost these phenomenological elements that we used to encounter in traditional and vernacular wooden houses and cabins. The experience of nostalgia is a distant yet intensely-felt gap between resemblance and identity, now and then, near and far that cannot be bridged.

2. What is Nostalgia?

The connotation of nostalgia has shifted from a clinical one to a metaphoric one throughout history. It was originally described as a “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause” by a Swiss doctor who coined the term in 1688. The contemporary concept usually refers to the emotion of “longing for what is lacking in a changed present… a yearning for what is now unattainable, simply because of the irreversibility of time.”

Nostalgia is Odysseus’s bittersweet homesickness that led his journey of homecoming. It is also the music genre of blues negotiating between modernity and tradition. Another clear example of nostalgia can be shown on this photograph depicting the aftermath of the Blitz in London, 8 October 1940. The young boy sits in the ruins of a bookshop reading The History of London while the whole world around him had just fallen into pieces. Nostalgia is conveyed through his attitude and desire of trying to make sense of the past, ‘reacting against the irreversible’, and probably questioning what’s next. Instead of a feeling hidden in the confines of one self, nostalgia here is a powerful ‘force that does something’. It gives both the individual and collective the strength and courage to continue, to challenge the current and future based on a thorough re-evaluation of the past. Nostalgia plays a critical role in the process of remembering, commemorating and revitalising the past. It is ‘a longing for essentialism’, defining thresholds, boundaries and hence orientations towards the future.

This essay re-examines the definition, quality, effect and role of nostalgia from an anthropological and architectural point of view, in relation to the traditional Norwegian building typology, log house (laftehus). The discussion will arrive at the end where the experience of physically moving a particular log house will be described along with prospective solutions for this particular log house.

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Along the investigation of nostalgia, questions, concerns and critiques will be raised. How should we view the past, traditions and history as architects? How do we handle our nostalgia generated from traditional old structures and craftsmanship? What is the nostalgia of an old log house? How could we use the positive effect of nostalgia as a tool to continue the story of craftsmanship? How does the new become part of the vernacular? How does nostalgia react against our current industrialised consumer-based society?

3. The Nostalgic Quality of Log House

A Travelling Home

A Log house usually carries its own nostalgia due to its distinct construction methodology. “Lafteverk”, notched buildings, is a type of load-bearing system originated in the Viking era, and was the most common way to build houses up to the mid 1800’s in Norway. Pieces of logs are laid horizontally and stacked on top of each other to create dense walls. A log house therefore is composed of much smaller pieces of modular elements which allow the house to be assembled or disassembled easily. The component based system has made log houses adaptive of movement and temporality. There are several observed examples in Bergen, for example, the houses (mostly log houses) in Gamle Bergen Museum today used to belong to the city centre. The original Stave Church in Fantoft (although not lafteverk) was also travelled from Fortun in Sogn in 1883 (although burnt down then rebuilt in Fana later). It is also common in Norwegian farms, even nowadays, to trade in old log houses in pieces. With these characteristics, a log house can be seen as a nomad, a migrant, a story-teller, a space that carries the nostalgia of its previous sites and owners but is always ready to move on. This quality of the log house is what I found familiar and nostalgic of, as a person who have been migrating and living in different places since a kid, as a rootless but grounded individual, as an immigrant and perhaps life-time traveller, always keeping new eyes and curiosities to the surroundings.

Loss of Craftsmanship – discontinuity between thinking, making and feeling

As mentioned previously, our modern built environment has been heavily mechanised, industrialised, globalised and commodified. Because of the unbridgeable interstices between thinking, making and feeling within the producing process, old buildings always appeal to the public in a lot more stronger way than the monotonous modern productions. Nostalgia in an old log house lies in the loss of craftsmanship in the construction process nowadays.

Craftsmanship is the connection between practice and theory, craft and art, head and hand, “the desire to do a job well for its own sake.” Within a log house, craftsmanship could be perceived through the diverse collection of horizontal logs that all have similar but different dimensions and handmade non-straight edges, the way each wood element is connected to the next ones without any metal, glue or non-organic material, the closeness to the texture and smell of wood (the axe marks, the ageing of old wood, the shrinkage and compression of elements)… As described at the beginning, the interlocking moment of the logs is a manifestation of a self-sufficient, honest expression of materiality and the essence of craft – the thinking and making process expressively portrayed at the final production to the users. The degree of craftsmanship contained in a log house makes an emphasis on the process of making and materiality, leading to the phenomenological condition and the experience of nostalgia within the space.

Human Connection to A Log House – an intimate subject-object relationship

Another clue to find nostalgia within a log house is to search for all kinds of human characters, traces and scales within the log house. Interestingly, one might find that everything within this space enclosed by horizontal logs has a close human relation. Again, phenomenology and bodily attentiveness play a big role in the experience of nostalgia. As mentioned, all the elements of the log house were shaped by a human from the moment the wood is cut off from the tree. When the uneven axe marks, the chopped off corners, the joining symbols or family trade marks on the wood are observed and examined at a close distance, one would automatically imagine the process of making in the past. The deliberate gaps left at certain joints (only seen when the log house is just built) tell the story of the craftsman’s consideration of time and gravity, allowing the wood to move, transform and adapt to the new environment as it “settles down”.

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The gaps left, the traces formed, the treatment applied, the imprecise organic lines…. nostalgia became the connecting force to create a spatio-temporal conversation between the craftsman, the house and the visitor.

4. Attitude towards the past – how to balance nostalgia

As a reaction to modernity’s temporality and “accelerism”, there seems to be a current overdose of nostalgia in most places of the world. Is nostalgia a good or bad emotion then? How do we balance our nostalgia from historical, traditional buildings and generate new energy from them? Anthropologists have categorised nostalgia as backward-looking and forward-looking. The former is understood to be “revisionist, regressive and debilitating”, often being criticised as a negative, displaced, ahistorical and apolitical perception. It is being sentimental and melancholic for the longing itself. The later is understood to be “productive, critical and therapeutic”, aiming at the ‘transhistorical reconstruction of lost home.’ There are much more neutral attitudes than the ‘black and white’ connotations, this section will therefore analyse the different degrees of nostalgia that could generate different effects, the potential ‘dangers’ of nostalgia with our relationship to the past and how to have a balanced attitude towards the past.

Different attitudes can be perceived through preservation and restoration strategies of log houses. The cultural foundation of the UNESCO site of Bryggen, for instance, has a set of relatively strict rules in terms of restoring its old log houses, the most iconic symbols of Bergen. After visiting and interviewing both the architect of the foundation and the carpenters who work on the current restoration project at Bryggen, we have noticed that one of the main principles there is to maintain both the tangible and intangible cultural heritage as much as possible. So the construction methodology from selection of the trees to axing the woods into logs, to the ways the joints are made should be exactly the same as 300 years ago. This “freezing the moment” approach is understandable and respected as protection to world heritage site. The demonstration of practicing and continuing the tradition is valuable in terms of saving the skills and cultures from disappearing when factory-produced wood is dominating today’s building practice. It tells us that the process of preserving the site itself keeps the traditions going. On the other hand, the main architect has mentioned that it is extremely expensive and time-consuming to run such foundation and projects. The carpenter on site said the process of axing the logs is meditating, satisfying but repetitive, time-consuming and non-practical to be an applicable method in today’s building reality. The preservation philosophy of Bryggen could be considered close to James Marston Fitch’s belief in the authenticity of the “prototype”. As he stressed that “the main reason to conserve buildings, sites, artefacts from the past is to preserve the prototype so that future generations can see what the past was really like.” Authenticity relates to a work being genuine and true and does not take into consideration its artistic or creative qualities. In this case, although there is no actual “prototype” for the whole category of log house, Bryggen could be seen as one of the most important and known sites for this Norwegian tradition. Nostalgia is conveyed through the effort of keeping the site alive as well as the authenticity of traditional building process and craftsmanship, despite the fact that this process would never become an everyday practice in our current and future society.

The fascinations towards heritage, “ruins” and traditions allow us to “experience historicity affectively, as an atmosphere, a space for reflection on the passage of time”. But this relationship with historical artefacts could also lead to museumification, deliberately-detailed preservation, and even imitation, falsification of the old. And when the emotion become part of the consumption of popular culture and fashion cycle, a ‘nostalgic mode’, a consumable style that does not involve memory per se, might dominate and disorientate our perspective towards the past and old. In Walter Benjamin’s writing “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, he has mentioned that authenticity in our age is less easy to identify, and perhaps less important than it had been previously. Therefore we should learn to evaluate and challenge the conception of the precious original, the sometimes stubborn cult towards authenticity, the modernist ideology of honesty, the essentialist obsession of site-specificity. It is confusingly hard to tell what is the truth and to form a reflective and reactive attitude towards past and tradition in our modern era. We should be inspired by Bloch’s conclusion that traditions that do not change will die. Similarly, old woods that are not put in use will rot. We should know how to distinguish and navigate between mindfulness and obsession.

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This is a nameless log house that I encountered when visiting a soup shop in Bergen town centre. I was immediately attracted by its diversity of languages at first sight. One becomes curious instantly when seeing different patches of wood elements juxtaposed with the horizontal logs at the same time. Perhaps it has been a house of different amateur craftsmen, each trying to have a conversation with the original log house. It is the house of the common people, restored and repaired in an every-day method, a big contrast of the heavily protected methodology in Bryggen. One interesting observation is also what the latest owner has done to the house after the latest renovation. The main log wall has been lit up with hidden light bulbs from the top. Two room-height plexiglass panels are framed in front of the log wall. The idea of the log house as an artefact is emphasised with a special display strategy, treating the wall as an artful piece of the past, handled with admiration and intention. The use of the “museum element” highlighted this “enchanted distance” between the subject and the object. The aesthetics of pastness is something that we could question.

This “comfortable and conveniently reassuring images of the past” was probably rendered by the commercialisation of nostalgia through popular culture. It has been a trend for young people to use digital filters in Photoshop or instagram to make their photos look ‘instantly nostalgic’. The creation of historic sensory environs divorced from any specific memory, past or history could be a misuse of nostalgia as a surface expression.

The image of misunderstood postmodernism, for example, is on one hand a reaction towards modernism, on the other hand, a nostalgic reference of the aesthetics of pastness. A lot of misuse of the style has led to exaggerated, sugarcoated, over-romanticised expressions which still exist today, especially when western ideas are adopted/exported instantly and unconsciously to the east. For example, Chinese replica of its own historical artefacts, monuments and cities has been a phenomenon when nostalgia is used to “preserve” culture and tradition in isolation with the needs of modernisation. A lot of Chinese provincial cities, e.g. Shanxi, Anhui, and Guizhou, are developing to become the “living fossils” of ancient China, especially the culture of “minority groups”. The image and atmosphere of pastness give the illusion of “re-living the past”. History, traditions and preservation here become means to an end instead of the beginning where we should learn from. ‘The petrified unrest of things’ confuses people about their identity. Nostalgia is even used as a political tool in China to negotiate the tension between “provincial autonomy and central authority”. Nostalgia here becomes even “a weapon”, a meaningless imitation to create a staged culture that is frozen in time. Craftsmanship and tradition could die from the displaced nostalgia.

5. Attitude towards the present and the future

“The voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

– Marcel Proust

Rather than viewing nostalgia as diffuse longing for an imagined past, we shall orient nostalgia to the present and future and to awaken it from its regressive state to become critical and productive. In the photograph of the boy at the London bookshop, it has the ability to generate powerful positive affects. Nostalgic laments can involve both moral critique of the present and an alternative to deal with social changes.

There has been a ‘back-to-basic’ movement generated by the nostalgia of American patrol ideal, named “Craftivism”. It is a form of social activism advocating oppositional politics in relation to centralised national governments and global economic trends, valuing local, individual production over consumption. The movement started from the sense of loss people gained in the wake of deindustrialization, when materials became nostalgic symbols and artefacts of a more authentic culture and temporality. It is a “contemporary memory project” that rejuvenates the past as a social justice-orientated movement concerned with modifying the present and shaping the future. It

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