Touch Wood
Carla Ferrer, Thomas Hildebrand, Celina Martinez-Cañavate (eds.)
Lars Müller Publishers
Paperback, 304 pages, CHF 40.00

AS THE CURRENT century plays out and the need for sustainability in architecture becomes more urgent, it is increasingly important to take the full life cycles of buildings into account. It is not enough for a building’s post-construction existence to meet base levels of energy efficiency; the materials and processes used to build it, as well as the source of those materials, must be sustainable as well. As resources go, wood is unrivaled its potential to either dramatically raise or drastically lower the carbon footprint of buildings, both before and after they are completed. Wood’s life cycle is not only economic but also literal, and viewing it merely as a resource that can be consumed and replaced gives an incomplete view of the complexity involved.

While Touch Wood takes such questions as its starting point, its overall objective is larger and more radical, essentially a re-centering of wood “not as an object of aesthetic contemplation nor as an object of consumption, but as a subject in its own right.” This re-envisioning of the act of construction, from something served by a particular material to something to serve that material, requires a radical shift in perception that goes beyond the standard parameters of sustainability discourse and enters the realm of the philosophical. Rather than downplaying this association, the book embraces it, focusing on numerous structures (particularly Japanese shinto shrines, but also churches and other places of worship and contemplation) that draw their entire character and identity from wood.

©Stephan Rappo

As several essays in the book point out, the living aspect of wood does not cease when a tree is cut down and processed into boards or planks; rather, it continues decades and even centuries after its conversion from tree to building material:

Humidity, site location, geography, and climate conditions all have an impact on how wood changes with time. That humanlike aspect of the material is its biggest strength, and at the same time one of its biggest limitations. Wood weathers and ages in an unpredictable way, much more so than other materials.

In his contribution to the book, acclaimed Japanese architect Kengo Kuma takes this idea a step further, describing his observations while traveling through Japan in the 1990s:

From north to south there were stark changes in temperature, and even the rain and snowfall differed in completely unexpected ways. Traditional wooden structures were skillfully designed to respond to that variation. Visiting those places and experiencing their climates firsthand, I realized that Japanese wooden architecture has been developed with a focus on adapting to its environment.

6a architects – Tom Emerson, Cowan Court, Cambridge, United Kingdom. ©6a architects; photo: Johan Dehlin

Kuma further suggests that traditional structures in rural Japan are not only sustainable due to their use of locally sourced wood and other materials, but go beyond that by enacting eco-stewardship, where surrounding forests subjected to controlled, prudent logging become more resilient than those that are simply left alone. His observations reinforce a core aspect of ecology that resurfaces throughout the book: it is those who live near and within forests that are best equipped to serve as their stewards, and it is these same populations that pay the price for mismanagement at a local and global level. With the accelerating effects of climate change, the concept of forest stewardship has in recent decades taken on greater urgency and new forms, including the more radical step—suggested by Esther Thürig in her essay on Swiss forestry—of introducing new species of trees to replace those harvested for wood, with the new varieties chosen based on their resistance to climate change.

Wooden structure by Blumer-Lehmann AG for the Swatch headquarters in Biel/Bienne, Switzerland. Architect: Shigeru Ban. ©Blumer-Lehmann AG

The essays that make up the majority of Touch Wood, while global in scope, focus mostly on Europe in general, and Central Europe and Switzerland in particular. While this can to some degree be attributed to the book’s Zurich-based publisher, Switzerland nonetheless occupies a unique position where wooden architecture is concerned. Not only does the country have a long tradition of timber architecture ranging from traditional alpine huts to modernist houses and offices, but it has also emerged as a leader, alongside Nordic countries like Sweden and Norway, in large-scale wood-based construction. Three new buildings currently in planning in Switzerland—Project Pi, High-rise H1, and Rocket—will be among the world’s tallest wooden structures, with the latter poised to become the world’s tallest, exceeding Milwaukee’s Ascent building, the current record-holder, by 13 meters.

Other essays approach the subject from a more granular materials perspective, with some, such as Ingo Burgert’s “Diversity as Proviso”, exploring differences between wood types at a cellular level. Viewing wood as a homogenized industrial product in the same category as bricks, concrete, and glass does a disservice to the diversity found within different species of trees. Rather than these differences being a liability, he argues, they can in fact offer advantages when properly assessed, where certain cellular-level properties make particular types of wood better-adapted to certain uses.

Wood samples from the Xylothek, Institute for Building Materials (IfB) of ETH Zurich. Xylothek, Institut für Baustoffe (IfB) der ETH Zürich, CC BY-SA 4.0.

The longer section “Architecture Projects in Timber”, which explores the diversity of wood-based structures in Switzerland and worldwide, widens the scope of inquiry. This section features photos that are more in line with standard architectural guides, and includes shared spaces such as community centers, schools, and office buildings. The diversity of buildings on display, ranging from exquisitely geometric vault-ceilinged offices to functional, boxy dormitories, serves as a reminder that wood can be as varied as any other material, and need not always be limited to boutique or high-end projects. Along with stone, it’s one of humankind’s oldest building materials, and its range and resilience makes it uniquely equipped to address the needs of a changing planet.