The most striking thing I noticed throughout my travels in Switzerland was the attention paid to tradition in architecture. Despite the great variety in architecture among regions, in every single place I visited, there is remarkable continuity in building style and substance from centuries ago to the present day. Sometimes a house built in a town in the upper Aare valley 40 years ago, whose wood is fully darkened, will be indistinguishable (from the outside) from a house built 200 years earlier, except perhaps for a written date. This loyalty to traditional form is a quality I admire, and it's one of my favorite things about Switzerland, perhaps just a close second to the country's natural beauty. Those who prefer to see architecture evolving and innovating above all may have an opposite opinion and eschew rural Swiss traditionalism. I can understand this, but my reasoning in its defense, one reason I like it, is that it gives communities a stylistic unity and harmony that really augments the sense of place.
Of course, Swiss rural styles have evolved, undergoing changes from simple to complex (and sometimes the reverse) that reflect innovation in construction as well as social factors such as the prosperity of a region's inhabitants. A noticeable change in material has also occurred in the 20th century, namely the growing dominance of plaster masonry (presumably for reasons of economy) in new construction in areas traditionally employing wood for building. While this practice has in some cases marred the appearance of a community (such as Wiler in the Lötschental), in many cases the style of a plaster building tries valiantly to harmonize with the older wooden buildings around it, resulting in varying degrees of success. At least the trend has not been toward the rectilinear, International-Style housing blocks whose mid-20th century urban European exemplars are so infamous, or toward some other style similarly out of context. About evolution (or perhaps revolution) in the interior design of rural Swiss buildings over the centuries, I can say little, except about what I saw at Ballenberg and the places I stayed. As one would assume, as technologies and economic situations improved, so did the interior amenities in Swiss buildings — while the outside form of the buildings remained much more stable. Almost certainly, and unsurprisingly, even new houses that are totally traditional-looking on the outside have contemporary amenities and technologies on the inside.
Along with the respect for tradition comes what I perceive as a general Swiss philosophy of making things to last. This applies not only to building but also to many other items (such as transportation infrastructure, home appliances, etc). Buildings are, however, perhaps the most salient example of this philosophy; one can see it working in villages with buildings of every sort of age up to 500 years old. Indeed, as far as construction goes, I believe that loyalty to tradition and building to last go hand in hand. The proven durability and functionality of Swiss Blockbau and post-and-beam buildings gives extra incentive beyond simple aesthetics to stick with these forms, even in contemporary construction. I think that especially the philosophy of building to last is a value that modern American society could do a lot more with, and I think we ought to take a cue from the successes of the Swiss built environment in our own building practices. I could go on about these issues, but that would be another report entirely!
Besides gaining an immense amount of knowledge of Swiss building and being able to steep myself thoroughly in the culture and environment of Switzerland, I was abruptly required to be more independent and self-reliant than I ever had been before. That was an extremely valuable experience. I'd like to thank the Wilmers family and the Dean's Office most sincerely for the opportunity to do this project, as well as Professors Nathan Sanders and Ed Epping for writing recommendations for my application. I hope you've enjoyed this account of my project as much as I enjoyed undertaking it.
BIBLIOGRAPHY and USEFUL RESOURCES
The Ballenberg Museum's website can be found in English here.
Guide to the Swiss Open-Air Museum Ballenberg, which you may be able to find online if you search around, tells the history of all the buildings (as of 1999, which was the latest edition in 2005; more buildings have arrived since) at the museum, often with architectural plans. Great resource.
Walking Switzerland the Swiss Way by Marcia and Philip Lieberman is a great guidebook that covers many of the places I went to and was an inspiration to visit these places. Published by The Mountaineers, Seattle, 1997.