☰ Workshops

Structures in Building Culture

Tectonical Shape of Wood (2011)

The origin of the material

Each material has its own character and allows in its field several ways of using and building. Finding out about these possibilities, making experiments and working with different materials is the main idea of the Erasmus Intensive Program “Structure in Building Culture” series. For the Belgian Erasmus Intensive Program 2011, our material to work with and to conquer was plywood.

What is the character of plywood? What kind of structures does it allow to build? What is the smart use of it? Working with a material in scale 1:1 means also to get to know and research about its origin. Plywood is a manmade material, which is produced through a long industrial process since the beginning of the twentieth century. The basic material of plywood is wood. At the beginning of the production, the wooden logs are cut from the tree bark. In the next phase, the steamed wooden beams are cut by different types of machines into thin wooden veneer, which are dried and afterwards sorted depending on the quality. In a next step, the veneer are connected with injected, rolled, poured or painted glue. After gluing the veneer together like a mille-feuille, the plywood pieces are extruded in several forms and dried afterwards. As a last step, the plywood pieces are cut in different sizes. Due to this industrial production process, the main opportunities of plywood – bending and joining – can be rooted and found in this manufacturing process.

The game of plywood

Bending plywood started with the designing of furniture at the beginning of the last century. At that time plywood was a result of the industrialization and a new material for architects to work with. In the language of the Austrian art nouveau style the Austrian Architect Otto Wagner used Plywood for the back and seating of one of his chairs 1902. Chairs like Alvar Altos “Paimio” from 1931 or Marcel Breuer’s chairs and tables from 1936 followed and made the use of plywood for furniture fashionable. In the nineteen-fifties Carlo Molino’s designed furniture showed the possibilities of bending and joining plywood in an exceptional way. Finally Arne Jacobs’s famous plywood chairs established and supported the use of the material plywood in the mass production of chairs. Each of these furniture examples are formed in a different way and show the wide range of possibilities of bending and shaping plywood. But all examples show the use of a master plate and the manufacturing process equally.

In the nineteen-thirties the usage of plywood for the construction of walls, floors and roofs was strongly improved by the industry and the technical capabilities of prefabrication made it a popular material in the United States of America. Famous architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra used and joined plywood in various ways and also supported the commercial advertisement of plywood. Joining plywood is strongly connected to its use. Furniture is connected in a different way than walls, floors and roofs. There are various ways in which plywood can be joined together. It can, for example, be locked into each other. It can be connected with nails or with overlapping joints. Plywood can be stitched, notched, weaved or glued together. The plywood connections can be hidden or be part of a tectonic game. Due to these possibilities, the joints are an important aspect and characterize the appearance of plywood at the end.

Two principles to build with

To examine plywood on bending and joining was a challenge of the IP Workshop. In the second Part of the Erasmus IP Workshop five different plywood projects were developed and finally built with simple tools and in the spirit of the craftsman in scale 1:1. Each of these objects examined the topic of bending and joining, depending on the theme of the project itself, in various ways.

One of the two objects built in the church composed a big, artificial landscape. The connection in this project was made with one, specially developed, interlocking joint. The second project in the church worked with bending. Long pieces of plywood were bended and woven to one object, which focused the daylight in the dark church. Both of these two projects built their structures with one technique, either bending or joining.

The other three projects used the techniques of bending and joining and merged them into an experimental hybrid construction. In this three hybrid projects, the plywood was cut in the right length and width first and bended overnight into the right shape. As a next step, the individual joints connecting the plywood structure among each other and to the existing site were developed. For the object built in the tower, plywood pieces were cut and bended to five rings in different sizes and diameters. Round pieces of plywood interlinked each of these rings and fixed them by the weight of the objects. This smart kind of joint allowed the hanging of the rings and produced a beautiful new plywood space in the existing tower. The hanging object in the trees consisted of a primary and secondary plywood structure. For the primary structure, the plywood was cut and joined to long pieces and finally bended into the trees. The secondary structure was woven into this primary structure. Both structures explored the bending and joining of plywood in different ways, but were connected together and built the main body of this sculptural object. In the last project, which visualises and marks the tunnel to the old moat, plywood was bended first and then connected. The developed joints interlocked to the plywood as well as to the brick tunnel. At the end, all three hybrid objects displayed a wide range of various and beautiful joints and bending solutions.

Plywood in motion

“Structures in Building Culture: Textonical Shapes of Wood” was a workshop that offered a wide range of vital impressions and lasting experience with the material plywood. Although plywood is a light and thin material, it offers a big stability. This characteristics combined with the qualities of bending and joining supports the wide spread and different use of plywood. This is a chance but also a risk of failure. For a truthful and clear use of plywood, the shape, the joints and the structure must be clarified and defined first; otherwise the material plywood is only reduced to fulfil a design idea. To explore these aspects and to use plywood in a structural way was the challenge of IP workshop at last.

by Carmen Rist
University of Liechtenstein, Institute of Architecture and Planning, Vaduz