The Latvian Farmstead, 16th–21st Century
In addition to being an economic production unit, the farmstead is the spatial microcosm of a Latvian. It is considered Latvians’ most common residential model, where the Latvian feeling for space combined with beauty and utility and harmonizing with natural rhythms. The farmstead is the economic centre for a family, firmed by a fenced in group of buildings placed around a yard. The more well-to-do the traditional farmstead was, the more buildings it had. The Latvian farmstead witnessed the unfolding the lives of its dwellers from the cradle to the grave. Both work and recreation took place here, festivities were celebrated and rituals performed.
The way the farmstead was set up, the number and type of buildings it contained were different in different times and places, often depending on tradition and terrain. What they all shared in common was the cleverly chosen location. Usually they were protected from cold winds, in a picturesque place near a river or lake and made compact, so as to take up as little space as possible in order not to take away land from arable fields. The possibility of digging a good well was crucial. The dwelling house was built in a dry place and, if possible, on a hill, orienting it lengthwise from north to south, slightly off the magnetic pole. The farm animals were housed at a distance to the north of the dwelling house, whereas the granary (klēts) was closer and to the south. All the buildings had to be visible from the windows or doors of the house. The threshing barn (rija) was built some distance from the farmstead on a hillock and taking into account the main winds. The bathhouse (pirts) would be located closer to the water. In Latvia’s breadbasket, Zemgale, the richer farmers built granaries with several rooms under one roof, which was not the tradition in Vidzeme. In Courland, several of the outlying buildings were combined under one roof, whereas Vidzeme long had the tradition of using the threshing barn for housing. In Latgale, on the other hand, farmsteads tended to be grouped together in villages.
There is written evidence that there were farmsteads with several buildings used for different purposes as early as the 10th century.
For several centuries, the farmsteads with their fields belonged to the German estates, and the Latvian peasants were only their tenants. During that time, the German landlords had a crucial impact on how the peasants built and kept up their houses, sometimes forcing certain improvements on them. A permit from the landlord was needed for building materials, for instance, and in order to spare his forest he might instruct the peasant to use clay bricks or clay and straw concrete. These materials were an exception rather than a norm, however, and houses made from horizontal beams predominated. To ensure the longevity of houses, landlords also insisted on the need for stone foundations, had an impact on the development of heating systems, and fostered the planting of orchards and alleys. Yet even under the regulations of one and the same manor, every farmstead had its own individuality.
Latvian peasants became owners of their farmsteads only in the 19th century, when they began to buy their farms from the estates. After the agrarian reform of the 1920s, new farmsteads sprang up, as land was allotted to those who had fought for Latvia’s freedom and others.
Along with other changes, Soviet occupation transformed the Latvian countryside: Soviets discouraged the single farmstead lifestyle with its individualism and independence, encouraging and sometimes coercing the move to villages. After Latvia regained independence, the separate, free-standing house is once again the residence of choice both for city dwellers, who spend their holidays there, and for those who are engaged in 21st century agricultural business.
In 1924, the Latvian Ethnographic Open-Air Museum was founded on the initiative of architect Pauls Kundziņš (1888–1983), who saw it as an injection of the Latvian environment into predominantly German Rīga. To this day it is one of the most popular Latvian museums, with an extensive collection of authentic Latvian farmsteads and other buildings brought there from other parts of the country and offering an insight into Latvian lifestyle from the end of the 17th century to the 1930s.
Starting in the 1980s, the most creative among Latvian architects have successfully used elements from the Latvian farmstead buildings in their designs.
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