Never before has wood been so highly in demand as a building material. The Zurich exhibition “Touch Wood” explores the future of building with wood. The book that accompanies it goes even further, illuminating current, cultural-historical and ecological facets of forests, trees and wood.
A review by Thomas Wagner.
The future of building, it is often said, cannot be won with concrete, steel and glass, nor with natural stone or bricks, and certainly not with plastics. Here only the regenerating building material wood would help. Anyone who wants to learn more about the importance of forests, trees, wood and future-oriented timber construction should look to Zurich. Both the exhibition “Touch Wood” at the Zentrum Architektur Zürich Bellerive, which runs until October 30, and the book “Touch Wood. Material, Architecture, Future,” understand wood not only as a building material. Wood is much and much more. If one wants to rethink and discuss “the role of wood that is so crucial for society,” it is worthwhile to look at this special material from very different perspectives. All the way to the question of what “transformative potential” wood has and what it can contribute to sustainable architecture of the future. The fact is: whether it’s about the carbon footprint, technological developments, “green” cities or the relationship with nature in general – forests, trees and wood are at the center of the discussion.
Helping wood spirits
Even the invitation in the title to touch wood opens up surprising perspectives: “Sometimes,” writes Philip Ursprung in the book, “we touch wood or knock on wood, often reflexively, to prevent misfortune. The gesture of touching wood is a rare remnant of spirituality in industrialized societies. It probably goes back to the ancient belief that guardian spirits reside in trees and that people can contact these spirits by knocking on the bark of a tree or hugging a tree. Could it be that the current growing interest in wood as a building material in industrial societies is also a sign of superstition? Are we hoping, for instance, that wood spirits will allow us to continue our industrialized way of life and grant us protection from the catastrophic effects of climate change?”
Trees are more than wood producers
So there’s still plenty of magic in wood. And many promises. But what exactly are we dealing with? When we talk about forests, we are talking about many trees, not wood. Trees are living organisms, not just a practical renewable resource. Trees grow, wood no longer does. Nor can wood only be used for building. In addition, not all wood is the same. And even if it continues to warp, it is ultimately a dead material. So the transformation of trees into wood is and remains a process of recycling: “A tree is best masured when it is down,” says an opera by Robert Wilson and Phil Glass.
Both the exhibition and the book aim to provide comprehensive information about wood as a material and the possibilities of timber construction. The exhibition focuses on building technology and architecture, while the book aims to explain the many facets of wood, trees and forests. Whereby one is surprised many times how great is the significance that wood has, and how ambivalent our relationship to this magical material has been and still is.
“Wood is one of the greatest and most necessary things in the world”.
In terms of cultural history, man and wood were closely connected, and not only in terms of the connection between power and forestry laws. According to Joachim Radkau’s contribution, Martin Luther already spoke about wood in a dinner speech on August 30, 1532: “I am surprised where our God takes wood for so many customs for all people in the whole wide world, as timber, firewood, carpenter’s wood […], wood for parlors, pigeonholes, shovels […]. And who can tell all the customs of wood? In sum, wood is one of the greatest and most necessary things in the world, which one needs and cannot do without.” The “wooden age,” according to Radkau, extended well into industrialization. And so many a slogan on the way to a new “wooden age” of ecological change comes from afar – and at the same time points ahead to the future.
Thinking in other time frames
Not only historically, but also temporally, wood forces us to think in other dimensions, as Jürgen Blaser makes clear: “An oak tree planted in the foothills of the Alps today, in the year 2022, will probably be fully grown by about 2170. The valuable Sipo tree that has just germinated and is starting a new life in competition for light and nutrients in a gap in the rainforest of the Congo Basin will, if all goes well, surpass the tree canopy sometime beyond the year 2200. The Siberian stone pine, at the present time a young tree in the Russian taiga, will also reach its full-grown size only in a similarly distant future. When we think about forests and trees, we have to think in centuries, not years.” Whereby, Blaser said, globally, it’s not the fate of individual trees that matters, but the fate of forests in which they grow: “Given the expected decline of non-renewable resources and massive environmental changes such as climate change, the fate of trees and forests is of fundamental importance to humanity in this remaining century and beyond.”
It’s hard to say it any clearer than that. Whereby much of what one can learn about trees and wood at “Touch Wood” challenges the prevailing economics as well as the notion that it is possible to continue to build with the same, homogenous and standardized materials. One of the strengths of the exhibition and the book is that it clarifies the often naïve belief that wood is either pure nature or a material that is available at any time, as homogeneous as the building panels that are often made from waste wood. Which, conversely, according to Albena Yaneva, means that “natural materials can no longer be treated as simple resources to be used and exploited by powerful people, planners or builders, but must be actively worked on ‘from within’.”
Partly dead, partly alive
In short, wood takes time, it’s valuable, it’s not new as a building material, but it’s increasingly in demand – even if it’s just one of many renewable materials that come into play in the development of a sustainable building culture. Wood is an organic and individual material of enormous cultural relevance. As a building material, it is both a renewable resource and dead matter. From which Philip Ursprung concludes: “The material wood is charged with emotion for industrial societies precisely because the tension between these properties cannot be resolved. Partly dead, partly alive – wood combines the material and the ideal, the past and the present, the tangible and the imaginary.”
Transitions to a culture of maintenance and repair
All these facets are fanned out in several chapters: From Forest to Wood and from Wood to Architecture. In the process, it becomes clear: that forests are becoming increasingly valuable, that they need protection and care, that forests absorb nearly 30% of the greenhouse gases emitted each year, that providing wood is just one of many services that forests provide. That wood was probably the first building material used by man, that modularity and reuse should be expanded in wood construction. In the chapter “Architecture made of wood”, Hubertus Adam then examines, starting from Switzerland, the relationship between the material and architecture over the last 150 years. Then a selection of Swiss projects from the turn of the last century proves that the often experimental approaches form the basis for current timber construction. And international projects by Grafton Architects, Kengo Kuma, Seng Kuan and Wataru Kumano prepare the transition to future visions of Anthropocene architecture and a culture of maintenance and repair.
In the end, it is not only architects who are asked to decide: To use fewer resources, to design for a material cycle, to care for built heritage, to design healthy living spaces, to design for everyday life, and to engage in a local building culture. To share one’s knowledge, to use new technologies, but also to learn from the craft. To experiment with hybrid systems, to build efficiently using prefabrication, to know the origin of the material – and some more. Or, as former German President Theodor Heuss put it, “Wood is a monosyllable, but behind it lies a world of fairy tales and wonders.”
Edited by Carla Ferrer, Thomas Hildebrand, Celina Martinez-Cañavate
Contributions by Hubertus Adam, Herzog & de Meuron, Seng Kuan, Kengo Kuma, Katharina Lehmann, Stephen Pyne, Helene Romakin, Philip Ursprung, Albena Yaneva and others.
Design: Integral Lars Müller
br., 304 p., 286 ill.
Lars Müller Publishers, Zurich 2022
ISBN 978-3-03778-697-0, German 2022
ISBN 978-3-03778-698-7, English (vsl. from September 2022)
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