Volume #41 — Bart Lootsma — The Tyrolean House: Invented Tradition or Simulacrum?

Volume #41 — Bart Lootsma — The Tyrolean House: Invented Tradition or Simulacrum?

2015 marks Volume’s 10th birthday. The coming weeks we’ll republish our readers’ favorite articles. If you feel tempted to highlight yours with a brief motivation, please send an email to 10years@archis.org.

“Have you ever been in the Alps? To understand how a single house can stand for a nation, read Bart Lootsma’s article on the Tyrolean House. It looks vernacular, but in fact it is an invented tradition which dates back to 1900 – it simulates tradition, which works pretty well for tourism, and produces an interesting form of camouflage architecture.”

Kai Vöckler is an urbanist in Offenbach. He is a founding member of Archis Interventions and has worked on urban development projects in Germany and Southeast Europe. Urbanism research projects in Europe and Asia. Competitions and urban planning projects with landscape architects and architects. Publications on art theory and urban themes. Doctorate in art history on urban spatial concepts. Curator of exhibitions at European cultural institutes. Endowed Professor of Creativity in Urban Contexts at HfG Offenbach since 2010.

Volume #41: How to Build a Nation

I will not trade my life for a lie
— Andreas Hofer

Whisper fairy stories till they’re real,
Wonder how the night can make us feel.
— Vashti Bunyan, Glow Worms, Just Another Diamond Day

I am quite certain that almost everyone, anywhere in the world has an image before their eyes when I mention the Tyrolean house. It is built in wood, sometimes with a white plastered first floor, has a wooden balcony and a moderately sloped pitched roof. Most people will picture it in a mountainous alpine landscape, but not necessarily. One should not confuse it with a Heidi house, which does not have a balcony and is a Swiss fantasy. It has nothing to do with cuckoo clocks either: those come from the Black Forest in Germany and were developed much earlier. More than the cuckoo clock and the Heidi house, over the last hundred years or so, the Tyrolean house has played and still plays a crucial role in the nation building of Tyrol.



The Tyrolean house is still built today: in Tyrol of course, where it forms an important aspect of the national identity, but also elsewhere in the world if people want to create a Tyrolean atmosphere, for example to re-create the excitement associated with après-ski people experienced on vacation. One can even find some indoors, in malls or indoor ski slopes. They feature in Heimatfilme, television series, and, Tyrol being one of their favorite settings, Bollywood movies. The Tyrolean house is built with more or less traditional means but it is also offered as an industrial product, as a kit. Parts that originally demanded a high level of craftsmanship, for example in wood carving, like the wooden ornamentation of the Stube, the traditional lounge, are computer designed and CNC milled today. Today, the Tyrolean house hardly ever maintains its original agricultural function. Even if ceilings, doors, window frames, faucets, stoves, lamps, logs, stone, rock and wood cladding are industrially produced today, it is possible to find products that at least carry Tyrol or the name of a Tyrolean village in their name, allowing to build the perfect simulacrum in all the details. Most Tyrolean houses are one-family houses but we also find much larger units for hotels for example. Companies that produce accessories for model railways, like Faller –which produces the popular Enzian house and pharmacy – and Vollmer have different versions, inspired from both old and new versions of the Tyrolean house, in their collections. In the nineteen seventies there even was a Lego-kit (number 349) of the Tirolerhaus. In other words: the Tyrolean house is so omnipresent in popular culture that most people would refer to it as ‘traditional’. The Tyrolean house is not traditional though. What we know as the Tyrolean house is the result of an invented tradition that dates back to around 1900. It was upgraded, reformulated and reinvented several times during the last century, always in reaction to larger geopolitical, social, and technological changes.


Invented tradition

According to Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, an invented tradition “is taken to mean a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and or a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behavior by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past.” “In fact”, Hobsbawm writes, “where possible, they normally attempt continuity with a suitable historic past.”1 As a first example, Hobsbawm mentions the “deliberate choice of a Gothic style for the nineteenth-century rebuilding of the British parliament, and the equally deliberate decision after World War Two to rebuild the parliamentary chamber on exactly the same basic plan as before.”2 Even if it is the only architectural example Hobsbawm mentions, similar phenomena can be observed in architecture all over Europe in this period. Mostly, these phenomena can be observed in the debates surrounding public buildings. What is special about the Tyrolean house is that it is, well, a house, which means that it was realized in larger quantities than public buildings and thus has a much broader presence in the built-up environment.


Immersed in nationalism

Most invented traditions go back to the thirty years or so before the First World War, which is also a period dominated by the rise of nationalism. For Tyrol, and also where the Tyrolean house is concerned, the aspect of nationalism cannot be overlooked, as the Princely County of Tyrol, including not just Tyrol, but also the provinces South Tyrol and Trentino were a part of the slowly but surely disintegrating Austro-Hungarian Habsburg Empire before the First World War. It was divided in two parts during and after the war, according to the Treaty of London from 1915, which was confirmed in the Treaty of Saint-Germain in 1919. Ever since, German-speaking South Tyrol and Trentino belong to Italy and Tyrol to the new republic of Austria. This division is still disputed today by quite a few Tyroleans, and as recently as the 1980s even violently with terrorist attacks. To complicate matters, Tyrol, again encompassing the territory of the formerly Princely County, is also a Euregion, a term established by the EU to connote a transnational cooperation structure between two or more nations.


Nationalism was a widespread phenomenon in the decades before the First World War, the political landscape brooding and shifting, but in Tyrol, maybe because of its repeated political reorientation and reconfiguration, it may have been more present than in other countries. Tyrol is like a trope wanting to be a noun. Coming to Innsbruck in 1876, architect Johann Wunibald Deininger (more on him later) found his role in a period in which a strong Tyrolean nationalism was emerging, which reached its peak first in 1909, with the centennial of the Battle of Bergisel and the celebration of the Heldenzeitalter (Heroic Age), and then in 1914, with the beginning of the First World War. In principle, Tyrol was faithful to the Habsburg dynasty but Tyrol was considered as the fatherland, not Austria or Germany. 1809 was the year of the Battle of Bergisel. In this battle, the Tyroleans, under command of the innkeeper Andreas Hofer, beat Napoleontic troops, mostly consisting of Bavarians. Even if the fourth and final battle was lost and Hofer himself was executed in Mantua, he became Tyrol’s national hero. The battle itself became the founding myth of Tyrol and, by the end of the nineteenth century this became its most important ‘invented tradition’ shaping a strong Tyrolean nationalism that continues today. In 1896, the battle was immortalized by a group of Tyrolean painters in the Riesenrundgemälde (Giant Panorama Painting). It was housed in a special building, at one of the entrances of the city of Innsbruck, on the spot where the Hungerburgbahn, the old funicular to the Hungerburg, one of the earliest settlements for ‘Sommerfrische’, ski tourism and artists, departed. In 1906, the panorama was brought to London for the Imperial Austrian Exhibition, after which it returned to Innsbruck. During the First World War it was brought to Vienna for reasons of propaganda. To emphasize that the tradition of the Battle of Bergisel is not an invention but that everything really happened, the panorama was recently moved to a new museum on the spot defined by the center of the panorama, the Bergisel hill, next to Zaha Hadid’s Ski Jump and just above where the entrance of the Brenner tunnel to South Tyrol will be. Today, Tyrolean nationalists living in Tyrolean houses – if they are lucky – but at least dressed in folkloristic costumes, in Dirndl (female costume) or as Schützen (riflemen), can re-enact the feeling to have been present at the battle by immersing themselves in the spectacle.


Reappropriation of expertise

Hobsbawm is eager to point out the differences between invented traditions and ‘custom’, which dominates traditional societies, as even traditional societies could not afford to be invariant because life itself isn’t. The repetitive character of invented traditions first appears to be strangely at odds with this. There are several aspects of invented traditions that can be considered explicitly modern, however, or at least suggest they are symptoms of people’s struggles with the process of modernization. In his essay ‘Living in a Post-Traditional Society’, Anthony Giddens points out that within what he calls “the global experiment of modernity”, “Everyday experiments reflect the changing role of tradition and (…..) should be seen in the context of displacement and reappropriation of expertise, under the impact of the intrusiveness of abstract systems.”3

It is in this context of a struggle with modernity that we have to see Adolf Loos’ dramatic appeal where it comes to the everyday experiment of building in his essay ‘Architecture’ from 1909. Loos describes a pastoral setting in the Alps, where the “sky is blue, the water is green and everywhere is profound tranquility. The clouds and mountains are mirrored in the lake, the houses, farms and chapels as well.”4 Until recently, local farmers, masons, carpenters and even engineers, who bring innovations like trains and ships, have managed to naturally build houses for themselves and their livestock: “Just as his neighbor or his great-grandfather did. Just as every animal does when it is guided by instinct.” But now, an architect coming from the city has built a villa among the local’s houses and “the tranquility, peace and beauty have vanished.” And therefore Loos asks: “why is it that any architect, good or bad, desecrates the lake?”5 Loos’ essay is an appeal to custom, not to tradition, and it is not a nationalistic argument either. But in that it would remain an exception.


Johann Wunibald Deininger

Johann Wunibald Deininger (1849-1931) fitted the profile of the architect Loos pictured in ‘Architecture’ perfectly, even if Deininger himself may have thought he was doing the opposite. However traditional Deininger wanted to be, he was a modern phenomenon. He was born in Vienna, studied architecture under Heinrich von Ferstl at the Technical University and with Friedrich von Schmidt at the Academy of Arts before travelling to Rome to learn what architecture was really about. After a career in the army he became an imperial civil servant in Innsbruck, first at the imperial Schloss Ambras. He designed a few villas, some of them on mountain lakes, even. Soon, he became Director of the Staatsgewerbeschule (State Trade School), stimulating the crafts. As such, he was clearly instrumental in a displacement and reappropriation of expertise in Giddens’s sense. Whereas “Books meant little to the craftsman” while “The architect took everything from books,” as Loos wrote in ‘Architecture’6, Deininger wrote several books on Tyrolean crafts and architecture. One of them, Das Bauernhaus in Tirol und Vorarlberg, written for the Association of Architects and Engineers in Austria in 1894, describes the Tyrolean house for the first time.7 It contains a series of typological studies of Tyrolean farmhouses according to region: the Unterinntaler type, the Oberinntal-Vinstgauer type and the Pustertaler type. Most houses have both a house and stable under one relatively flat roof, in order to avoid the snow sliding off too quickly. They are partly made of wood and partly of stone and in many cases there are polychromic paintings on the façade, which led Deininger to the assumption that all farmhouses built between the sixteenth and eighteenth century had been painted. In reality, many of Deininger’s conclusions were highly doubtful. Most of the types of farmhouses Deininger describes do not originate in Tyrol at all, but in southern Germany.

This did not prevent the book from becoming quite influential. Students of the Staatsgewerbeschule made the drawings in the book. The material in the book was not only used in teaching, but also for example as an inspiration for the construction of a South-Tyrolean Torggel Haus and an Unterinntaler Bauernhaus at the first Tyrolean national exhibition in 1893, and later for the construction of a Chateau Tyrolien at the Expo in Paris in 1900. In a photograph one can see it with the Eiffel Tower immediately behind it.



After the first Bund für Heimatschutz (Associaton for Homeland Protection) was founded in Germany in 1904, Kunibert Zimmeter and Gotthard Graf von Trapp founded the Verein für Heimatschutz in Tyrol in 1908, with the goal to protect nature and landscape, conserve cultural traditions like music, dances and costumes, maintain historic buildings and the image of ensembles in villages and cities. The Verein für Heimatschutz intended to counteract the effects of industrialization, which in the eyes of the founders had caused bad taste and a destruction of the beauty of the Heimat Tyrol. “Even if because of the natural development many things have to change, it is certainly not necessary that this goes on behalf of the most beautiful views and most respected landmarks. It is time that we try to preserve the particularity of our country as good as possible.”8 Like the Tyrolean farmhouse as defined by Deininger, many of these traditions were in fact interpretations, idealizations, inventions and constructions that served to build a national identity. It is easy to see that most people would never have had the money to afford such elaborate costumes or houses. Immediately after the First World War, the Heimatschutz became increasingly influential.


The parental home

Josef Steger’s Ein Buch für das Tiroler Haus (A Book for the Tyrolean House), from 1923, was written just after the founding of the new, much smaller state of Austria and the separation of Tyrol from South Tyrol and Trentino after the First World War. Steger was a teacher and a school inspector and the book was used in school. It is more openly nationalistic than Deininger’s book but cannot define this nationalism by the original territory any longer. Therefore, the Tyrolean house itself becomes the very source of nationalism. With all possible rhetorical tricks, Steger seduces the Tyrolean readers to not just understand but also to feel how they are incorporated in this environment from childhood on and, in turn, embody the house and the value systems inscribed in it. The book starts with a personal memoir of the author growing up in his parental home before describing the Tyrolean house in all its details, its history and so on. He discusses manners, customs, and laws, but also introduces issues of health and food, largely by means of stories that have a morality. Thus, the house as the parental home becomes the most important educational center for life, the ‘primary school’ to learn what is essential about Tyrolean customs and manners.9

In Ein Buch für das Tiroler Haus the house is embedded in the village, which is embedded in the Land (Tyrol), which is embedded in the Reich (the new Austria), which is embedded in the Volk (People, the Germans), like a gigantic set of Matryoshka dolls. Andreas Hofer, together with the Tyrolean heart and the mountains, keeps their central position, but the orientation towards the German Reich is of course a new perspective in comparison to the Habsburg Empire. Steger explains that just as God had grown different kinds of trees, he had also developed different people: the Russians, the English, the French and the Germans, who all have their geographical space. It is a clear attempt to make state and people fit again, which is the basis of the nation state. The orientation towards Germany also leads to a resourcing of the Tyrolean house. Different from Deininger, in an extensive typological genealogy, Steger describes different kinds of huts and the German influences as sources for the contemporary Tyrolean house. It is an optimistic book: wages will rise forever; the harvest in Tyrol is bigger than in the average German village; and houses got bigger and better over the course of history.


Settlements and hotels

In the nineteen twenties and thirties, the issue of scale became a new factor in architecture. The housing shortage caused by the war led to the construction of larger projects. In the city, references to traditional rural architecture were introduced as ornaments in housing blocks. On the periphery, settlements were built, inspired by the Garden City and Settlement movements. These developments, often built and organized by corporations, usually consisted of smaller houses with vegetable gardens and stables for cattle, in order to allow the inhabitants to produce their own food. Some of these settlements were realized in a style, which, with its steep roofs, reminds more of the English cottages or houses that one can find in German Garden City projects than of Tyrolean houses. The Hörtnagelsiedlung in Innsbruck though, named after the butcher Hörtnagel, who gave the land for free, is realized in rows of twenty-nine small, simple identical houses, which are clearly inspired by the Tyrolean house. It was finished in 1937.

The rise of tourism, particularly winter sports, caused a demand for new kinds of buildings like hotels and funicular stations, which because of their scale stood out in the landscape or in the historical villages they were built in. Modernist architects rarely had a chance to realize these buildings. If they did, they incorporated regional themes in their buildings. Clemens Holzmeister could count on the most support of the Heimatschutzbewegung, when he built the Hotel Post in St. Anton in the fashion of a giant Tyrolean house in 1930. This strategy became the example for many hotels to follow.

The real Tyrolean house

Austria’s Anschluß to the German Reich in 1938 again led to a reinvention of traditions. As Andreas Hofer had been born in Meran, South Tyrol, had been accepted by the Habsburgs, and had been quite Catholic, he did not fit Nazi ideals as hero figure. They sought to replace him with the rebel Michael Gaismair, who led the Tyrolean peasants against the Catholic Church, early capitalism, Spanish Jews, and the Habsburgs in 1525 and 1526.

Several leading architects in the Third Reich, like Alwin Seifert and Paul Schmidthenner, had houses in Tyrol and thus showed an above-average interest in the question of how to build there. Alwin Seifert, Reichslandschaftsanwalt under Hitler and among others responsible for the way the Autobahn was placed in the landscape, published the book Das echte Haus im Gau Tirol Vorarlberg (The Real House in the Gau Tyrol-Vorarlberg) in 1943.10 Seifert, who thought the definitions about race in the Third Reich were too Nordic, wanted to see an Alpenländische Rasse (Alpine Race) incorporated in them. Even if Seifert was less strict in his selection of the origins of the Tyrolean house than his predecessors and saw influences also from Italy, France, and Switzerland next to the German influences, he reduced the Tyrolean house to one single type: the alpenländische Flachdachhaus (Alpine house with a flat roof). This he associated with race. In the eyes of Seifert, this alpine race is not a Herrenvolk, which goes to war, but a people of small farmers, Kleinhäusler and Dienstboten, who stay where they are and thus have made it possible that we can still find a rich built heritage. For Seifert, the Tyrolean house is a simple house and, for example, cannot be polychromic. New houses should respect this tradition; avoid being fashionable imitations as well as individualism, and, by using traditional building methods, fit in their environment.

Intriguingly, the influence of Seifert and Schmidthenner continued after the Second World War. Even if both were not allowed to work for longer or shorter periods and could not return in their old functions, they found refuge in Austria and continued working there. Schmidthenner had published his own house in the mountains near Imst in Der Baumeister in 1941. Similar to Seifert, Schmidthenner stated that newly constructed houses should be modest and adapt to the landscape. They should not try to imitate a farmhouse and not be a miniaturization of a larger Tyrolean house either. Asked again in 1953, when, under the rise of mass tourism, one could apparently already witness a serious sprawl of holiday houses in the mountains and most of their builders asked for a Bauernstube, Schmidthenner again emphasized that his house was not a farm house, and that the farmers who sold their interiors to antique shops were no longer farmers. “Whoever, peasant or city dweller, takes the essence of beautiful simplicity as an example, will always achieve the right thing.”

Ever since, we can find the Tyrolean house, in all sizes and in all possible contemporary typologies, from the holiday house to the multi-room hotel, all over Tyrol. In most villages, there is no obligation to do this. With few exceptions, there are no laws and not even mayors prescribing a Tyrolean style. Why it nevertheless remains as omnipresent as it is would demand more research. Some suggest it is the tourist industry that wants to offer a recognizable image. Certainly, also nationalistic, conservative, and reactionary tendencies still exist. From an invented tradition, the Tyrolean house has turned into a simulacrum.



The hegemonial presence of the Tyrolean house in Tyrol certainly poses some problems and has provoked criticism. The Piefke Saga is a satirical television series written by Felix Mitterer and broadcasted by the NDR and ORF between 1990 and 1993 about the rise of tourism in Tyrol, Piefke being a nickname for Germans in Austria. The fourth part, Die Erfüllung (The Fullfillment), which is set in the near future, suggests the oppressive nature of the tourist industry, which artificially tries to make everything look authentic, while underneath the surface all kinds of perversions happen. In order to maintain the image of the village hotels have to build eight stories underground, offering their guests artificial views on demand. Après ski has turned into a swinger club. All Tyroleans look like Andreas Hofer, because Japanese surgeons operate and brainwash everyone who want to work in tourism. The mountains are in fact garbage dumps with plastic lawns on them. Snow is produced artificially. Apart from the Andreas Hofer clones, most of this has indeed been realized. “Schönes Land Tirol! Alles Lug und Trug! Alles Lug und Trug!” (Beautiful state of Tyrol! Everything lies and cheating!) screams the German tourist Karl-Friedrich Sattmann when he discovers it, fleeing with a group of resistance fighters.11

Now that tourism demands more and more luxury, with at least four and possibly five star ratings, older hotels, built in the style of the Tyrolean house, remain empty. Some of them house refugees today. There is a great photo series and film made by Günther Richard Wett and Robert Gander showing what painful problems this poses.12 In one of these refugee homes hangs an embroidered Tyrolean landscape with a Tyrolean house. “Vergiss deine Heimat nicht” (Don’t forget your Heimat). It is already unclear for whom this maxim was meant originally: for the Tyroleans, so that they would keep Tyrol as it was, or for the tourists, reminding them not to stay too long. In a refugee center it becomes utterly cynical. It may be that we all struggle with the effects of modernity. The example of the quasi-traditional Tyrolean hotel as refugee center shows best how the exclusive effects of one-dimensional nationalist branding work and how problematic they can become in our contemporary globalized society.

This article could not have been written without the research by students of the University of Innsbruck within different courses and studios by architecturaltheory.eu, notably Hanna Teresa Sölder’s Master Thesis Die Erfindung des Tiroler Stils (2014), Lucas Hoops and Gregory Speck’s paper ‘Hypertyrol’ and Nikolaus Hämmerle’s paper ‘Warum der Tiroler baut wie er baut’ from the studio Fundamentals –A Rregional Pattern Language in 2013.


  1. Eric Hobsbawm, ‘Inventing Traditions’, in: Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, The Invention of Tradition, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Anthony Giddens, ‘Living in a Post-Traditional Society’, in: Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens, Scott Lash, Reflexive Modernization, Politics, Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order, (Cambridge/Oxford: Polity Press, 1994).
  4. Adolf Loos, ‘Architektur’, (1909) in: Adolf Loos, Trotzdem, (Georg Prachner Verlag, Vienna, 1931).
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Johann W. Deininger, Das Bauernhaus in Tirol und Vorarlberg, (München: Callwey Reprint, 1979).
  8. Verein für Heimatschutz in Tirol, Gründungsurkunde, Innsbruck, 1908.
  9. Josef Steger, Ein Buch für das Tiroler Haus, Gewidmet den Schülern der ländlichen Fortbildungsschule, (Innsbruck: Verlagsanstalt Tirolia, 1923).
  10. Paul Schmidthenner, ‘Der Maßstab in Tirol’, Tiroler Heimatblätter, Heft 7/12, 1953, as reprinted in: Arno Ritter, Claudia Wedekind, Reprint, Ein Lesebuch zu Architektur und Tirol, (Innsbruck: Studienverlag,  2005).
  11. Felix Mitterer, Die Piefke-Saga, NDR/ORF, 1990/1993; DVD Studio Hamburg, 2010; Felix Mitterer, Die Piefke-Saga, Komödie einer Vergeblichen Zuneigung, (Innsbruck: Haymon-Verlag, 1991).
  12. Robert Gander, Günter Richard Wett, Warteräume. Eine visuelle Recherche in den Flüchtlichgsunterkünften Tirols. (Innsbruck: Hernegger, 2012).

School in Exile