Wooden, colourful houses scattered across beautiful landscapes perhaps fit the Nordic image perfectly. Typically painted in darker tones of red, but also found in a multitude of other colours, these houses offer an environmentally friendly and sustainable way of living. Built from wood, often from nearby forests, they can blend in well with their environment.
It is easy to understand why they are so popular in the Nordics, a region more densely populated with forests than any other in Europe. And aside from being extremely photogenic, some of the houses also have a fascinating history and are an integral part of Nordic heritage. Dating back centuries, many now act as museums, whilst others symbolise and replicate life from many years gone by. Let us zoom in to two countries, Finland and Sweden, that are the home to many of those fascinating houses.
Finland's Neristan: The Old Wooden Town
Kokkola, the capital of the Central Ostrobothnia region in Finland, is home to one of the country’s most extensive and best preserved historical areas of wooden houses: Neristan. Dating back to the 17th century, these houses have managed to withstand fires, uplift, and contemporary city-wide development, representing a sense of spirit and soul in the city. Just by walking around the area, remnants of its rich history can be felt everywhere. Signs of the past life of artisans and sailors remain prevalent to this day.
Painted in many pastel shades, if you look closely, you will see that some of the houses have porcelain dogs in the windows. Perhaps surprisingly to outsiders, these dogs actually represent the area's strong maritime history. In the past, sailors would bring these home to their wives from overseas. Then, when the sailor was out at sea, the wife would turn the dog's head outwards to announce they were travelling. And if he was at home, the dog's head would be turned inwards, to show the sailor had returned from the seas. A small symbolism, with a long history.
From Everyday Life to a Modern-Day Museum
Many wooden houses in Neristan now act as museums such as the K.H. Renlund museum. Kokkola’s rich cultural heritage can be experienced here through its exhibitions, educational programmes, and representations of both history and art. Personal stories are voiced inside an array of wooden buildings. They tell stories of business and cultural booms, from the perspectives of ship-owners, tar merchants, and craftsmen. By giving the viewpoints of these past residents, a story of how the city pioneered entrepreneurship and built the place it became can be told to people today.
Aside from this, time also stands still at the Home of Fredrik and Anna Drake. The home tells a story of past life and culture. Built in the 1830s, this place housed four generations of the Drake family. They were artisans, who lived here until the late 20th century. Some of the contents of the house date back from the 18th century, and they include over 3000 books, Objects d’Art, and handicrafts. Some say it’s almost like entering a time machine.
A similar experience can additionally be felt at The Bailiff's House, also found in the city of Kokkola. The deep yellow, two-story house has been lived in as early as the late-18th century and was home to the state tax collectors. Named after state tax collector Christian von Willinghusen (1666–1674), the building is a local heritage site. Legend has it that there was once a tunnel heading to its cellar, which von Willinghusen made the most of by smuggling merchandise past toll stations. And today, the wooden house still boasts this dry-laid cellar, which reveals natural stones, an arched ceiling, and a dirt floor. Another instance of past life and culture.
Let’s head to Sweden: Karlskrona’s wooden houses
Staying with the Nordic tradition, the district Björkholmen in the Swedish city of Karlskrona also exhibits a fair share of wooden houses. From shades of soft purple to darker navy colours, these buildings would make anyone’s Instagram posts pop. Manufactured in oak and sitting low, many have been preserved since the 18th century. And as they are located close to the city’s old naval base, they often housed shipyard workers and acted as a stark contrast to the shipyard wall, which historically separated the neighbourhood's military from its civilians. With the wood being of such high quality, it’s the best-preserved and oldest part of the city, allowing anyone who visits to get a taste for how life was previously lived.
And 3 kilometres west of the city of Karlskrona, you will find the community of Brändaholm. Often branded as one of Sweden’s most beautiful community gardens, its idyllic setting is postcard worthy. The 43 wooden houses here are mostly painted in the stereotypical deep red tones and date back to 1920. It’s said that the first house took 12 hours to build, as a handful of men travelled to the small island by boat. The area then became a haven to the workers of Karlskrona as they were allowed to switch off from their hectic lives, to move here and live amongst nature, whilst being given the opportunity to grow their own fruits and vegetables. Fast forwards over 100 years later, and the charming gardens are still being enjoyed by the city’s residents and visitors.
Rich in Culture and Well Preserved
So, it’s now clear how important these wooden houses are in telling a story in the modern-day. Aside from being highly practical due to their sustainable and environmentally friendly nature, they also represent life from centuries ago. From housing sailors to shipyard workers, their magnificent preservation now plays a key role in relaying past history. With some becoming museums, and others simply areas to visit and leisurely walk around, it’s clear how relevant wooden houses are in Nordic culture.
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