One trademark of modern architecture is the free plan.  Instead of using walls to bear the weight of a building, the load comes down to the ground on columns.  Freed of bearing loads, walls can be placed where they are needed, saving space and material; you can even have a continuous strip window when there’s nothing to bear on the glass.

Villa Savoye. Poissy, 1929. Le Corbusier. (© k+NAP)

Despite its association with modernism, the free plan has been around for a long time; for example, here’s a post-and-beam structure, a Norwegian stave church in Oslo.  It’s from the twelfth century;  it’s no longer used, it’s part of an outdoor museum of traditional buildings called the Folkemuseet:

The buildings at the Folkesmuseet have been brought there from different parts of the country when they’ve outlived their usefulness.  This stave church is not huge.  You can see from the person in black standing on the left that it’s only about the height of a three-storey building – easily within the range of a bearing-wall structure – but the Vikings chose to use a kind of  free plan (see: it too has a kind of strip window wrapped around the ground floor).  Look at the inside:

The space is enclosed by walls, but there are objects inside the room – columns – carrying the roof load and the other various loads down to the ground.  See how thin the walls are, from this nineteenth-century section drawing, they’re just a layer of paneling:

It must have been awfully cold in the winter.  Here’s a plan drawing of a very similar stavkirke (stav means post, kirke is church):

The walls are independent of the structure.  If you still need proof that what you can see on the outside is mere paneling, here’s a picture of the Oslo church before they moved it to the museum, it looked completely different:

Stavechurch at Gol in Halingdal. Drawing by Hans Gude, 1846.

They disassembled it and moved it in winter, on sledges, but they only reused the frame.  The exterior had undergone changes in 1664 and 1802 and the sponsor of the project, the so-called Society for the Preservation of Ancient Norwegian Monuments, decided to remake the exterior to appear more medieval.  To do it they copied the exterior of Borgund Stavkirke at Sogn, on the west coast of Norway (the plan & sepia-coloured drawing above are from Borgund):

Left: Borgund (photo Glaurung). Right: Oslo.

(One influential precedent for fudging the past, which we find so shocking, was Viollet le Duc’s work at Nôtre Dame de Paris and at other gothic sites in France.  He was interested in creating what he considered to be perfect gothic structures and saw no irony in making them less authentic in the process.)

Siganus Sutor who is a structural engineer thinks stave churches look unstable, like a house of cards, as if they might blow over in the wind.   Not all old Norwegian wooden buildings conceal their structure.  Next door to the stave church at the Folkesmuseet is the building below, you can just see the cantilevered ends of the wood beams under the roof:

It’s a stabbur, a building to store food on a farm, raised above the ground to keep rodents at bay.  The building rests on a wooden above-ground foundation: huge massive beams, tree-trunks that have been carved and fitted together like a rubik’s cube sit simply supported on eight squared-off boulders:

There are still lots of stave churches left in Norway, although many others have burnt down.  A little while ago, Nijma pointed out the stylistic similarity between Norwegian stave churches and temples in Thailand.

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