Innovative architects all over the world are taking advantage of the new possibilities offered by wood, reports Jonathan Bastable
‘Wood is only a one-syllable word,’ wrote the German journalist and first president of the former West Germany, Theodor Heuss, ‘but behind it lies a world full of beauty and wonder.’
The wonder of wood surely derives in part from humanity’s primordial dependence on it. Our earliest ancestors, after all, were tree-dwellers: they were closely acquainted with living wood before anyone ever stripped a twig or whittled a stick.
The hominid universe was transformed by the discovery that trees could be burned, that wood equalled warmth. And it was wood that brought the troglodytes out of their caves, by making it possible for them to construct artificial caves on the flat, hot plains. Aeons later, when Aristotle wanted to coin a term for primal matter, he took the Greek word for wood, xylon, and bent it to his philosophical ends.
For centuries, we have lived in cities made of stone or of materials that mimic stone. We have come to see wooden architecture as something as quaint and old-fashioned as a four-poster bed. But wood has never gone away, and now architects the world over are experimenting with walls and floors of wooden sheets tightly glued together crosswise, so that the natural grain creates a warp and a weft. It is as if plywood — the stuff of cheap shelves and kitchen cupboards — had been re-engineered and magnified to the scale of architecture.
The resulting building material is stronger and lighter than steel, clean and renewable, easy to shape and cut — and even fire-resistant because of wood’s moisture-retaining properties. Builders and designers speak of this wood sandwich as if it were a novel invention, and they have given it reassuringly techie names and acronyms: X-Lam, glulam or CLT (cross-laminated timber).
The new ways with wood make all sorts of things possible. One Swedish firm has plans for a ‘woodscraper’, which sounds like something out of a carpenter’s toolbox but is in fact a 34-storey wooden apartment block destined to rise over Stockholm. This residential tower is a case of technowood imitating 20th-century forms and materials — just as, say, the marble pillars of the Parthenon are, at root, stylised logs or tree trunks.
But for a decade at least, contemporary architects have been exploring the unfathomable versatility of wood as a building material. A new book, Wood, showcases some of the world’s most beautiful and ambitious wooden architecture.
In Beijing there is a library that looks like it was made from neat bundles of kindling; a glulam pavilion in Chicago Zoo has the curviness and airiness of shavings caught in the act of falling from the lathe. It may be that architecture’s ferro-concrete era is drawing to a close, and a second wooden age is about to begin.
Wood edited by William Hall, is published by Phaidon on 20 March