Wednesday, June 17, 2009

There's no place like heim: everything you wanted to know about Alsatian farmhouses but were afraid to ask

Swiss-influenced homes in Buswiller

One of the most striking features of Alsatian architecture is what I call the “half-timbered house” – I don’t know what the proper terminology for this style is. I think it is better known in the English speaking world as “Tudor-style” but that seems awfully Anglo-centric, so I don’t use it.

In any case, these houses are by far the dominant style of home in the villages of Alsace, especially on the Rhine plain. They’re a little less common in Strasbourg (with the exception of the Petit France neighbourhood, which I’ll get to later) whose generally wealthier residents opted for stone buildings after the 1700s.

I never thought too much about them until this Saturday, when one of Amynah’s colleagues took Amynah, myself and our two guests on a tour of his home region of Kochersberg. K-berg is a sub-region of France (there are many hundreds of them) just to the northwest of Strasbourg.

We arrived in Rafaël’s home village of Offenheim, where we enjoyed a light lunch of goat cheese, bread, cherries, and apple juice behind his family’s farmhouse. The house had been erected in 1788, and had a keystone over the door with the date inscribed. The bit on the stone where the family name had been was chipped off. Rafaël explained that this might have been due to the offending presence of a crown in the decorations, which became a dangerous choice of ornament the following year.

After the lunch, and a quick tour of the inside of Rafael’s house (which I desperately regret not snapping photos of) we set off on the tour of Kochersberg.

The downside of a roadside location: this chapel was all that remains of a village wiped off the map in the thirty years war

I can’t do justice to the tour – Rafaël is a knowledgeable and passionate guide, speaking with equal ease on linguistic, political, and architectural history. He covered more than I could possibly relate here, leading us through an scrambled alphabet of Alsatian villages: Quatzenheim, Nordheim, Duntzenheim, Zutzendorf and Buswiller, among others.

Those names reflect the different cultures that have had an impact on Alsatian culture: the “heim” suffix is derived from “home” in German, while “willer” comes from the Roman “villa.” Other names, like the “Kocher” in “Kochersberg” comes from the old Celtic languages. The mix leads to some odd combinations: “Berg” apparently means hill in Alsatian, while “Kocher” means hill in Celtic, making Rafaël’s region “Hill hill.” Stranger still, there were very few hills in evidence worthy of the name.

Another interesting fact Rafaël passed on was that during the Reformation, Alsatians organized themselves into Protestant and Catholic villages. The region’s large Jewish population generally chose to live in the Protestant villages, where they lived unmolested by the Inquisition, free to construct half-timbered synagogues for themselves.

House being refurbished in Quatzenheim: straw and clay filling visible. Finished product in the background

The Protestant villages generally ended up being wealthier than their Catholic counterparts, by grace of the French Revolution. When the revolutionary government in Paris nationalized Catholic Church property, and then sold it to raise funds, the Church forbade its members to buy. Protestant farmers suffered from no such prohibition, and were therefore free to enlarge their holdings.

Now, to the buildings themselves: Alsatian homes in Rafaël’s region were constructed around a large courtyard, with a gate at one end. Rafaël’s home had a large stable running along one side, a hay barn along another, a third barn next to the house on the third side. Additionally, they had a small distillery for making shnapps (Eau de vie – “water of life” – in French) from the fruits grown on their property.

The homes themselves were large, and designed for a multi-generation family. In fact, Rafaël lives with his parents and grandparents, among furniture that has been in the family since before Louis XVI parted company with his head. The structures are designed for flexibility – the beams and the clay-straw mix are easy to disassemble and rearrange. That way when a marriage created a new family unit, they could be accommodated under the same roof.

To the untutored eye, once Alsatian house looks much like another. But they were not merely homes to their inhabitants – they were expressions of their hopes, their fears, their beliefs and their personal idiosyncrasies. The pattern of the beams expressed different folk beliefs: at an angle was an appeal fertility, curved crosses prevented fire, diamond shapes warded off the evil eye. Beams were decorated with faces, ogres, flowers, or simply strands of wheat. Other houses carved the names of the owners into the beams.

The holy of holies

At one point in the tour, we were joined by Rafaël’s friend Daniel, and another man whose name I didn't catch. All three were passionate conservationists – Daniel owned three Alsatian homes that he was restoring. At one point, we stopped outside of a home formerly owned by a University of Strasbourg professor, who had been president of the local conservation society. The three men stood outside it, struck silent with a reverent awe, like a Beatles fan at the Abbey Road crosswalk, or a climber seeing Everest for the first time. The man had installed traditional windows, old-style tiles, and locally-made doors. But the home was not just an exercise in creating an impersonal, frozen relic: in the central beam on the façade, he had carved his and his wife’s name, together with their wedding date.

Buswiller prospect

Our final stop was Buswiller, a tiny hamlet just north of Kochersberg (in an area whose name translated as “bush land,” according to Rafaël). This village, away from the tourist routes and far enough away from Strasbourg to deter property re-developers, is apparently the best-preserved village of typical Alsatian architecture. As an added bonus, there were some rare Swiss-influenced homes on display as well – one of which had been on the market for over a year, much to Daniel’s disbelief. I mean, who wouldn't want to live in Buswiller?


Natalie Joan said...

Fabulous. Love the architecture. And the narration. I have a feeling your posts about life in California won't be quite the same.

Mark Reynolds said...

...and here we have an example of a 1970s-era low-rise apartment block. Note the gated parking lot, later addition that became more common after the Rodney King riots in the late sixties...

Yeah, not quite the same.