Another edition of Perspective Europe has now ended, continuing a tradition started in 2009 to bring together architectural firms, developers, engineering firms, and companies involved in the construction sector and create opportunities for meeting and networking. And the event was a real success, attracting over 500 participants from Italian and European planning, design, real estate, and manufacturing firms, who talked and exchanged viewpoints at a series of meetings, workshops, and panel discussions. Among the various topics examined at the Venice event, an emphasis was placed on sustainability and the environmental impact of architecture. This was certainly true of the plenary session, moderated by managing editor and co-founder of THE PLAN, Nicola Leonardi, on the rational use of wood in all its varieties. In this article, we’re looking at how the speakers – namely, the director of AHEC Europe, David Venables; Alison Brooks from Alison Brooks Architects; and designer Maria Bruun – tackled the subject of the modern use of this ancient material. The title of the plenary conference was The New Age of Wood: An Ancient Yet Contemporary Material with Sustainability and Versatility at Its Core.
Using empirical evidence from a raft of concepts, projects, and completed buildings, the conference examined how we can go about achieving a balance between the use of wood in architecture and the fight against deforestation. The conference indicated that the two can – indeed, they must – work together through regulations for the responsible use of the material, on the one hand, and a culture of sustainable forest management, on the other. The resulting benefits are both at the environmental level and in terms of quality of life inside the buildings themselves: proper forest management improves carbon capture, while the thermal insulation qualities of wood promote energy and, therefore, financial savings.
Wood’s versatility and flexibility make it suitable for large-scale projects, such as the educational building discussed by Alison Brooks, as well as sophisticated design objects that grow out of throughgoing interdisciplinary research, as is the case with Maria Bruun’s creations. These qualities were also demonstrated by the anthology of projects put together by the AHEC for the Forest Tales exhibition, held at the Milan Triennale during Fuorisalone 2022. They included four projects and 22 furniture designs, all made using three varieties of sustainable American hardwood – namely, maple, cherry, and red oak – all versatile timbers that are quickly replenished but still aren’t widely used in the manufacturing and design sectors. Seen together, the different views were a wakeup call that we need to move towards a more conscious and knowledgeable use of these timbers, which grow faster than they are harvested.
Used flexibly for structural elements and more, wood is the primary material used for Exeter College Cohen Quad in Oxford, designed by Alison Brooks. This reinterpretation of the traditional quadrangle was created in part by working closely with engineers to maximize carbon capture.
The interiors overlook two internal courtyards created by the building’s S-shaped plan, in a design that fully respects the importance and long history of this space. The design combines wood with other materials (stainless steel, glass, and metal, for example) to produce a hybrid composition with an almost iridescent appearance. “Ideals then ideas,” to quote Alison Brooks, this building is an example of how we can return to nature even when we’re indoors by interpreting and enhancing the emotions it evokes.
Although occupying an entirely different space in terms of time, methods, and scale, Maria Bruun’s designs are characterized by the extensive used of wood – sometimes even as hinges for a chair or other piece of furniture. According to Bruun, to fully exploit the potential of wood, it’s essential to establish strong interdisciplinary collaborations with people such as cabinetmakers, potters, and sculptors. She stressed that “the future will depend on interdisciplinarity,” because “really knowing a material means going further.” An example is the collection she exhibited at the Connected exhibition. Dubbed Nordic Pioneer and commissioned by the AHEC, the collection was created during lockdown in response to how it forced her to use her home spaces in different ways, such as to cater to children at home from school and parents working remotely. “Design is a desire to create,” she concluded. “It’s one and the same visually with a life project, with an openness to life. It’s giving shape to the magic of a material. Wood in this case.”
Individual photo credits are included in each gallery image