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Structures in Building Culture

Tectonical Shape of Wood (2011)

Processed Wood

An impressive and exceedingly physical action: the heavy machine is slicing a foil of wood off the steamed trunk of a beech tree, peeling the formerly homogenous and solid piece of sculptural potential into paper-thin sheets. The noisy process is of an incredible brutality and beauty in the same time. Peeling a trunk, which is grown concentrically for years, in an extremely fast spiral rotation creates a nearly endless sheet of wood. Cut into pieces, the fragile foils are of a stunning natural beauty, almost reminding a polished piece of onyx marble. Carefully sorted out and stacked in different qualities in huge halls, the vulnerable veneers are in a zero point of the production, like virgin sheets of sheer paper waiting for somebody to write on. This is a silent state before, in the next step of the production line, the pieces of almost immaterial and fugitive quality are selected, arranged and added before they are finally glued together under heat and high pressure. Now fragility has gone and stability takes over. Due to crosswise laminating, the single sheets start to work together, enabling the finished plywood to react on forces in a natural way. Depending on the amount of layers, bending without cracking is possible, and even weaving is an option that becomes obvious. Through that, plywood is predestined for bent profiles or moulded shells in furniture production, again, shaped under pressure. A wonderful example of this plasticity is the famous leg splint designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1943 and manufactured for the United States Navy in the Second World War. Mass produced and economic, but highly ambitious in design, it caresses the body of the wounded with an exceptional beauty.

In contrary, the making of a chipboard plank is considerably less poetic. The used wood needs no specific qualities, is cheap and the waste product of another production process. Chipping reduces the wood to a uniform size and, with this, it actually reduces most of the wooden properties to a rather low level. Cooking the ingredients together with resin and glue to a sticky dough creates finally a undirected mass that needs to be brought into shape, unlike plywood, which is clearly layered in a mille-feuille-like composition. There is a dramatic absence of complexity in the appearance of the material, there is no tension between the thing and its origin, it is what it is and offers nothing more than its purely industrial character. That makes is true and highly modern to a certain extent.

Obviously, the manufacturing process of both derived timber products shows similarities, especially the use of resin and the pressing with high temperature that induces the glued veneers or particles to adhere together tightly, creating a strong bond. Still, there are crucial differences, apart of the costs. Although an industrial product, fabricated by machines, plywood benefits a lot of the unveiling of the inner timber structure of the trunk. The revealed year rings are still readable as a strong and individual signature and refer immediately to nature and growing. In opposition, chipboard demonstrates nothing more than how it is made. Chopped, assorted, glued, cut and now ready for use, there is no evidence of any quality that goes beyond its origin – anonymous, recycled wood. In this, we might identify a peculiar property: it is neutral as a piece of cardboard, smooth and plain, once brought into shape, the boards are convenient for all kinds of use. There is no depth of the surface, no meaning on its skin.

A Theory of Dressing

Gottfried Semper distinguished in his famous book “Style in the Technical and Structural Arts, or Practical Aesthetic” four essential categories of making artefacts: weaving, moulding, carpentry and masonry. He argued that man evolved patterns in weaving long before buildings were erected. In his interpretation, weaving is declared as the Urkunst, the origin of art, which preceded the evolution of structural form. Subsequently, Adolf Loos argued that dressing is even older than construction. He extended the principle of Semper back to nature: man is clothed with a skin; a tree is clothed with a bark. In construction, this last layer serves for protection, for a certain appearance or has a symbolic nature. This conducts him to his “law of dressing”: the material must be treated in a way, that confusion between the dressed material and the dressing is excluded.

With our choice of plywood and chipboard as building materials for the Erasmus IP 2011, two categories of Semper’s theory were addressed: plywood is determined for techniques that are known from textile production, whereas chipboard, due to its stiff and unidirectional character, tends towards carpentry. Both “arts” are positioned within the array of light-weight construction and deeply rooted in the nomadic tradition of mankind. Taking this ephemeral aspect as a challenge, we used both materials particularly structural and in a “naked” way. But through three-dimensional and tectonic assembly, the skeleton becomes both the dressed as well as the dress itself.

Structure and Complexity

The last Erasmus Intensive Programmes of the “Tectonic in Building Culture” series were linked to heavy and massive constructions: concrete, stone, brick. However, in all these workshops, a counter weight to the compactness occurred: concrete was poured into a textile formwork, giving the amorphous mass not only a texture but also a fragile and nearly frozen appearance; although dry stone walling is tending to a maximum compactness, it is inheriting a considerable amount of air and therefore space; and, apart of punched holes, brick is inhabiting even more air in its ceramic body through the fabrication process in the kiln.

Apart of this interest in the contradictious aspects of different building materials, we have tried in all the recent workshops to look into the manufacturing process of the materials we have been working with. This is an essential point. A brick for instance is a manmade module related a lot to the weight a man is able to carry and handle without the help of another. As Richard Sennett points out in “The craftsman”, the size of a brick corresponds exactly to the hand of the mason. Referring to the great historian of bricks, Alec Clifton-Taylor, the addition of these rather small modules in a brick wall “produces a human and intimate quality in comparison to the natural stone architecture of representative buildings, an accumulation of small effects”. Shingles are traditionally cleaved by hand to avoid cutting the wooden fibres. This makes them last longer and gives them a great strength against rain, wind and sun. So the treatment of the raw material to a building material is essential in its meaning. What we call material is in most cases a semi-manufactured product that has only few resemblances with its origins. There are differences in processing it, of course, but what we keep in our hands to work with has gone a long way since its source. In industrial processes, a row of manipulations is needed to domesticate the raw character in order to receive a format and size that we can handle easily.

In the metamorphosis of the wood, from the unwieldy and static trunk that is cut into pieces an almost textile quality where the single fibre cannot be split up anymore – at a degré zéro de la matérialité – it loses the stable form, that has grown silently over years and instead, flexibility, fragility and instability occur. Processed further, plywood and chipboard, although related to each other, receive an almost opposite character. This allowed us to work with bending, weaving, or even knitting – textile techniques – but also to connect with joining and interlocking, which belongs to carpentry. In all the final projects of this workshop, we tried to play with the inherent properties of processed wood to articulate a richness in expression that opens a door towards a reinforcement of the role of the architect as a researcher in a field of the material and structures.

Urs Meister
University of Liechtenstein, Institute of Architecture and Planning, Vaduz

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