Wood Architecture

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Wood Architecture


an extensive branch of architecture, the art of construction in wood; its specific character is determined by the materials and the construction methods used. Because of its availability, durability, light weight, low heat conductivity, and the fact that it is not difficult to dress, wood is an excellent construction material. Hence, in areas that have an abundance of lumber, wood architecture has been one of man’s oldest ways of solving architectural and construction problems (remnants of villages with pile houses on the Modlona River in Vologda Oblast date from the Neolithic age). Wood architecture is limited in its possibilities in comparison with stone; its expressiveness is achieved through simple geometric forms of which the structural unit is the length of a log, the natural texture and quality of the wood (pine, oak, spruce, chestnut, beech, silver fir, palm, and others), and decorative carving and painting that complement or underscore its beauty.

Two systems of wood construction developed—one based on a frame, the other on a skeleton. They existed for many centuries arid reached our times almost without any changes. While there is an immense wealth and diversity of figurative solutions and compositional variations, stemming from socioeconomic and natural and climatic conditions, there are common construction methods in all types of wood structures (residential, service, church, defense) seen in the USSR, Western Europe, Africa, Oceania, Southeast Asia, Canada, South America, and other places. These methods have created integrated and harmonious towns and villages (especially in Russia). Fires and the relatively short life of wood resulted in the nearly total disappearance of early monuments of wood architecture. Thus it is difficult to trace the evolution of wood architecture. The methods and amount of time that it took to transform primitive four-cornered frame structures with gable roofs and meager decor into extremely complicated palace complexes with a fairy-tale splendor of detail and the shift from single-domed frame churches to multistory, multidomed cathedrals is not readily apparent.

Preserved structures (mainly those of the 17th-19th centuries, rarely of the 12th-16th centuries), descriptions by contemporaries, drawings in old documents, icons, and paintings give an idea of the importance of wood architecture in the past and the mutual influence of wood and stone architecture. The influence is evident in structures with beams and pillars, in the form of fortress towers, in the manner in which the pyramidal roofs and stories of churches were finished, and in the three-part composition of residential houses, for example. A distinctive trait of wood architecture is its affinity with the natural surroundings: the buildings appear to be inseparable from them.

The uniformity and relative stability of economic and everyday life led to the uniformity and slow evolution of the planning and dimensional treatment of residential houses (in Russia, the izba), based on a frame with a hearth (later a stove) and two or four gables. The frame residential house is widespread in the RSFSR, Byelorussia, the Ukraine, the Baltic region, Poland, Rumania, Czechoslovakia, Finland, Scandinavia, and the mountain regions of Italy and Switzerland. Local character is created by varying dimensions, the arrangement and form of the framework (some of which is polyhedral like wood churches—for example, the small houses of Carpathian shepherds), the shape and covering material of roofs, the interiors (a division into three parts with an open hearth in the central part is very common), the introduction of other materials (for example, the stone foundations of alpine houses or the straw roofs of Russia, the Ukraine, Byelorussia, and Poland), and particularly by the decoration of facades and interiors.

The framework of the izba is made of horizontally placed logs (7-10 m long, 25-50 cm in diameter). Long poles (slegi), which form the foundation of the roof, are supported by protruding pediment logs (samtsy) that extend the trimmed walls of the frame. The gable roof is crowned by an okhlupen’ (a log with a triangular groove) that presses from above on the ends of boards resting on the slegi and special poles (kuritsy) with hook-shaped ends that support the gutter. All the parts are joined without nails. This construction results in an extremely logical, clear, and stately structure with a measured rhythm of uncovered rows of logs that contrasts with the decorative upthrusting roof; it creates highly expressive wooden residential buildings, made all the more expressive by the introduction of specific decorative elements (laconic sculptural carving that decorated mainly the kon’ki (the ends of the okhlupen’) and the kuritsy poles of the roof and the balusters of the porches). As sawed wood became cheaper (after water-powered and later steam-operated sawmills appeared in the 18th century), less expensive upper portions of houses made of rafters, board pediments, and decorative items (eaves, carving on roof line, window frames, porch balusters, and overhangs) became widespread; carving (both relief and kerf) became more complicated in imitation of elements of stone ornamentation (in the forms of window frames, pediments, and balusters).

The frame is divided into individual cells or rooms (two in central and northern Russia; three in the Ukraine, Byelorussia, and the Baltic region). As the need arises, additions are made to the original frame, forming “doubles” and “triples.” The length of the logs limited the length and width of the structure, but it was possible to increase its height considerably. The system of frames with “falling” towers linked by passages and corridors in Rus’ was called khoromy—the mansion. A free, colorful plan was typical of three-story mansions of the Stroganov family in Sol’vychegodsk (1565, not preserved) and especially of the palace of Aleksei Mikhailovich in the village of Kolomenskoe near Moscow (1667-81), with its asymmetry, varied roofs, complicated system of porches, and decorative carvings.

The many types of Russian izby of the 18th and 19th centuries that have been preserved fall into several stylistic groups. In the northern regions four-wall izby on a high foundation predominate. They have either a gable roof that extends quite far beyond the pediment or an onion-shaped roof (in Arkhangel’sk and Vologda oblasts). Houses in a “pouch” arrangement (the izba and the farmyard are adjacent and covered by one asymmetrical roof) or with a rectangular plan (when the yard adjoins the izba in the rear) are seen in the Karelian ASSR. The extended overhang of the roofs, the thick logs of the frame and the subflooring of the timbered ramp (the hayloft entrance), and the scant carved details endow northern izby with a severe simplicity. Siberian izby resemble them, but the doubles, triples, and the four-wall izby with a high foundation have a still more isolated and fortress-like character. The log walls, the wide floor planks, the ceiling beams, the benches and beds with carved borders attached to the walls, huge stoves, and painted flower designs (restrained in the north but more opulent in Siberia) give a sense of harmony and interrelation of all the details of the interiors. The izby of the central Russian zone (the region between the Volga and the Oka rivers and the Upper Volga Region) are cozier, decorated with festive-looking, flat-relief carvings (so-called ship carving).

In skeleton houses the posts and the horizontal crossbars form a frame (whose strength is sometimes increased by the use of additional diagonal bracings or stiffeners) that is filled in with wood (post or frame and plank constructions) or other materials such as clay, stone, or brick. The simplest wood houses of the skeleton type are seen in the countries of Africa, Southeast Asia, America, and Oceania. Compared to frame construction, skeleton construction with its rhythmic rows of supports and crossbars permits greater planning freedom and the formation of large openings that let in light. In China, along with the simplest two-room and three-room houses, huge palace complexes of skeleton buildings were erected (seventh-12th centuries). Powerful pillars, carved and painted cantilevers—-toukungs—and massive curved tile roofs created splendid buildings. The very light Japanese houses, in contrast with the Chinese, are asymmetrical and the layout can be altered by rearranging the interior partitions. In many countries of Europe (West Germany, East Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and others) framework architecture is highly developed.

Service structures (barns, storehouses, mills, bridges, and baths) reveal the engineering and designing genius of national masters with particular clarity. The special functionally justified elements of design used in such structures (the wings and supports of windmills, the steep timbered ramps and galleries of barns and haylofts, the thin piles of the baths, and the powerful supports of bridges) create sharp, expressive building silhouettes.

The oldest wood church buildings are known only from literary sources. Russian chronicles mention the oak Cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Novgorod (989), crowned with “13 domes,” and the Uspenskii Cathedral in Rostov Velikii (992). The church, being the sole public building, stood out by its height and dimensions from the ordinary structures of the town or village. The buildings preserved on RSFSR territory date mainly from the 15th through 18th centuries. Most common are the single framework churches reminiscent of an izba with a gable roof (crowned with an onion-shaped cupola topped by a cross) and additions (altar, refectory, narthex)—for example, the St. Lazar Church of the Murom Monastery (late 14th century, in present-day Kizhi) and the church in the village of Borodava (1486, in the present-day Kirillo-Belozersk Museum and Repository of Architectural History and Art.

The tent-roof churches came in many shapes and sizes—hexahedral, octahedral, square, or cruciform frameworks with steep pavilion roofs. The central framework often ended inapoval (broadening of the upper cribs of the framework by gradual overlapping of the logs to form a cornice that can extend the eaves) to act as a support for the roof and to protect the walls from excessive moisture. The central frame was combined picturesquely with the additional buildings (covered with sloping and curvilinear roofs), and exquisitely carved porches and galleries—for example, the churches in Panilovo, Arkhangel’sk Oblast, 1600; in Varzuga, Murmansk Oblast, 1674; and in Kondopoga, 1774; as well as the cathedral in Kern, 1711-17.

Curvilinear roofs supporting five onion-shaped cupolas are also typical of the area—for example, churches in the village of Kushereka, 1669, and Piiala, 1695, and the Preobrazhen’e Church in Turchasovo, 1781; all in Arkhangel’sk Oblast.

The churches of the central zone of Russia were characterized by the ornate upper stories which were either quadrangular (the church in the village of Shirkovo, Kalinin Oblast, 1697) or octagonal (Voznesenie Church in Torzhok, Kalinin Oblast, 1653, and the Church of John the Baptist on the Ishnia River, near Rostov, Yaroslavl Oblast, 1687 or 1689). Particularly complex are the many-domed churches of the Kizhi parish; they combine the severe majesty of log walls with an exquisite silhouette and tremulous designs on the scaled domes. The pyramidal octahedral bell towers had a skeleton frame and were faced with logs on the lower storys, while the upper parts of the pillars formed an open gallery—the bell tower. The church interiors were commonly decorated with carvings and paintings, creating a festive and joyful effect (the Virgin Eleusa Chapel in the village of Korba in the Karelian ASSR, 18th century).

The simplest type of a Ukrainian wood church was a squat church of the izba type without cupolas, built in three sections of different heights with gable roofs (church in Sychin Village, Volyn’ Oblast, 16th century), octahedral pyramidal roofs (cathedral in Kovel’, Volyn’ Oblast, 1505, and the Church of St. Nicholas in Vinnitsa, 1746), or semispherical helmet-like roofs (the Church of St. lura, 1654). The framework was often covered with horizontally laid boards. Cruciform churches with one to nine cupolas were common. The central framework with the most developed cupola always dominated the church, bringing its silhouette close to that of a pyramid (the cathedral in Novomoskovsk, in Dnepropetrovsk Oblast, 1773-81) and reaching great heights (the church in Bereznia, Chernigov Oblast, 1761, is 34 m).

The most typical churches in the Ukraine had three frames (distributed along one axis) with ledged pyramidal roofs that created a dynamic effect and gave the low buildings an upward thrust. There are churches that end in whole cascades of ledges (the Church of St. Nicholas with six ledges in the village of Krivki, 1763, in present-day L’vov). The triple frame churches built by the Carpathian Ukrainians are taller on the west side, where a Gothic-type tower rises above the narthex. The Byelorussian churches are close to the Ukrainian, but are covered with vertical siding. The wooden pegs that attach the boards to the framework form a pattern.

The churches in Poland (the Roman Catholic churches in Debno and Grywałd, both built in the second half of the 15th century; Rabka, 1606; and Powrožnik, 1643), in Rumania (the church in Fildul-de-Sus, second half of the 17th century), in Czechoslovakia (the churches in Bodruzal, 1658, and Hronsek, 1725-26) are distinctive; they combine the particular aspects of wood architecture with a skillful interpretation of the styles of Western European stone architecture (Gothic, baroque, and classical) in the framework, roofs, and details. In the synagogues of these countries the wood framework is finished with suspended rafter constructions so that the spacious premises can be ceiled (in Grodno and Volpa, Byelorussia; in Gvozdets near Chernovtsy and Ostropol’ in the vicinity of Zhitomir, the Ukraine; and in Zabłudów, Poland; all 17th century). The suspended rafter constructions to which the ceilings were attached had the appearance of cylindrical or closed vaults and were often used in the frame churches of Finland—for example, in Saloinen (1622), and in Tornio (1686, by master M. Härmä).

Temples of the skeleton type have been known in Japan and China since the first centuries A.D. (the Shinto temple in Ise; the Buddhist temples in Horyuji and Fokuan). They are based on the construction principles of primitive pile dwellings (the structures rest on posts and platforms), brought to the point of perfection by the art of rhythmic distribution of posts and the felicitous combination of light walls with massive overhanging roofs.

Churches with a double carcass developed in Scandinavia. They have an interior skeleton of graceful pillars linked by arches and cross beams and an exterior skeleton with walls of wooden vertical plates fixed to a frame (the stavkirks of Norway in Urnes, 1060-1130, and Borgund, c. 1150). The interior of the three-story pyramidal stave churches is open to the very top of the building (up to the slopes of the roof supported by a complicated system of rafters). Despite their relatively small dimensions, the churches seem monumental, as do the Swedish bell towers built as a framework resting on posts placed close together (on Frósón Island on Lake Storsjon, 1754).

Wood defense structures had an important influence on the development of a town, on its plan and silhouette, up to the 17th century. Only a few have been preserved (the remnants of the Yakutsk wooden fortress, 1683; the Bratsk and llim ostrogs in Siberia, both 17th century; and the walls around the Nikolo-Karel’skii Monastery, 1692, at present kept in the Kolomenskoe Museum Repository in Moscow). These structures had fortified framework walls covered with earth, with an open walk along the top protected by a log parapet, and severe towers surmounted by low tent-shaped domes.

At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, many architects drew on the forms and decorations of folk wood architecture when constructing exhibition pavilions, dachas, and railroad stations.


Modern wood architecture. As a construction material wood is used in rural areas (in heavily forested regions), in urban temporary construction, and in settlements. It is used successfully for small architectural projects such as fences, entrances, park gazebos, and pavilions.

Improving the quality of wood (seasoning with antiseptics, pressing, and treatment with antipyrines make the wood fire-resistant and strengthen it) and the use of special glue for joining wood elements has made it possible to manufacture structural members of any length and shape, and has made wood still better suited to the aims of modern architecture (in the USSR wooden pavilions with large interior spans were constructed at the First All-Russian Agricultural and Craft and Industrial Exposition in 1923). There is wide-scale construction of low-rise residential houses assembled from prefabricated light wooden skeletons and panels in the USA, Finland, Norway, and Switzerland. Soviet and Canadian experience has revealed that building houses with skeletons made of wood rather than other materials is more economical and effective in regions of the far north and in forested regions. In constructing industrial, public, and agricultural buildings, widely used materials include cemented girders (knitwear factory in Mansefield, England), triple-hinged frames of various shapes (clothing factory in Turku, Finland), and arches (laboratory of Phoenix Company in Essex, England). Domed roofs made of arched cemented ribs and latticed vaults that make it possible to cover large spans are used primarily in the construction of buildings for sports events (covered stadiums in Florida, with a 90 m bay, and in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, with a 62 m bay; the coliseum of a college in Kentucky, with a bay of 94 m; and the ice-skating rink in Grenoble, France). Folded structures are now widely used in construction (paper plant in California) as is sheathing in the form of hyperbolic paraboloids made of thin boards glued together in two or three layers or of plywood. Resting only at two points such sheathings completely free the interior of supports, making it possible to create light spacious rooms with little expenditure of materials (vegetable market in London, numerous schools and other children’s institutions in Great Britain). The new structural elements create diversity and a wealth of architectural solutions in building wooden structures similar in form to buildings made of ferroconcrete or aluminum. The characteristic texture and decorative qualities of wood elements, plainly seen in spacious interiors and easily discernible on facades, imbue wood structures with a unique warmth and create a striking artistic effect.



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