‘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.
Barn B, Mason Lane Farm, Kentucky, USA. De Leon & Primmer Architecture Workshop, 2009: The grid-like façade of this barn is constructed from bamboo, not a material you encounter often in Kentucky. From a distance, the warp-and-weft effect of the beams creates the impression of something handmade: it looks like a tartan wrought from straw, which is entirely fitting for a building designed to dry hay. Photograph © Roberto de Leon
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.
Community Church, Knarvik, Norway. Reiulf Ramstad Arkitekter, 2014: This dramatic building on the Norwegian coast is a modernist take on the wooden stave churches of Scandinavia. The ‘windows’ on the jag of a spire are in the same wood as the rest — but heartwood, which is darker. These rectangular patches make the pale sapwood steeple seem less sharp and dangerous, less like a shard of sea ice. Photograph © Hundven-Clements
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.
Sharma Springs, Green Village, Bali. Ibuku, 2012: From above, this building looks like dry petals on a bed of moss. It is in fact a six-storey forest home made entirely of bamboo. Each lanceolate leaf is a roof covering an open wing of the house; the thick grey stalk is a tunnel that crosses a green ravine and leads to the building’s fourth floor. Photograph © Errol Vaes
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.
Three Mountains, Green Village, Bali. Jörg Stamm, 2006: This great bamboo roof covers a workspace for 300 people. Historically, bamboo buildings were always small and temporary, because they were doomed to be reduced to dust by powderpost beetles. These enormous poles have being steeped in a salty solution of sodium borate, which renders the bamboo inedible, so making it durable. Photograph © Mark Magidson
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