Let's hear it for timber construction
19 July 2021, Paul Finch
The American political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously declared ‘the end of history’, in what turned out to be a highly inaccurate prediction about world futures. (The wittiest critic of his proposition, slightly surprisingly, was Margaret Thatcher, who said it sounded like ‘the start of nonsense’).
There is a parallel in relation to Modernism in architecture, since it was at least partly predicated on a Year Zero approach, suggesting that it could be pursued without reference to its historical Enlightenment roots provided once understood Greece and Rome.
Everything which has succeed Modernism has, in some sense, been an attempt by the architectural profession to revalidate that critical break with a perceived redundant historical context. Post-Modernism reasserted the importance of the entire history of architecture, embracing colour, representation and artifice. Architects who could not stomach the crudities and third-rate commercial design pomo generated continued to proclaim the virtues of both functional efficiency (high-tech) and then environmental design, partly in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis, as mainsprings for a revived modernist proposition. Modernism was newly validated as indeed it is today, now in relation to production technologies including robotics and AI.
As things have turned out, largely as the result of what we now know about the effects of carbon emissions, it is carbon-conscious design which has now assumed supremacy in the lexicon of architectural responsibility. The RIBA recently told its members that they must think about the benefits of retrofit rather than rushing to demolish useable buildings, full of embodied carbon. This seems very sensible, provided it does not become a ramp for opposing anything new.
It is unfortunate that some materials are currently being ‘criminalised’ by zealots (sometimes with hazy scientific knowledge) who are trying to apply cancel culture attitudes to architectural affairs and see easy targets in the world of manufacture and production of the new.
We should beware these witchfinder-generals and subject their claims to rigorous analysis. I am looking forward to reading serious studies now being completed which examine some of the claims being made about, for example, timber buildings compared with steel and concrete. Things are rarely quite as simple as they may at first seem. The non-construction version of this was the intense pressure from environmentalists to switch from petrol to diesel. It turns out that this was an error for which huge numbers of people are being penalised financially. I must have missed the apology from ‘greens’ on this.
This is certainly not to suggest that timber construction should not be actively encouraged. Two designs which have won awards in which I have been involved make the point. The Architecture Review Future Project Awards office category winner this year is a horizontal timber-structure building which would be 54 storeys tall were it vertical. Located next to rail tracks in Vancouver, architects Acton Ostry have cleverly echoed the design of freight trains in their proposal. In a webinar last week they raised the interesting question of why it is cheaper to import Austrian CLT products than it is to buy them locally. This is surely a market which is set to grow geographically.
A second winner, also a future office building, is by our very own FCB Studios and will also stand next to railway lines, this time in London near Waterloo Station. ‘Paradise London’ is another hymn to timber construction and interiors. It won a World Architecture Festival WAFX award because of its exemplary approach to carbon and climate issues. One can only hope that the UK government and the insurance industry will cease to demonise timber as a ‘dangerous’ material on fire grounds. This is absurd beyond belief and needs urgent action from Whitehall and environmental lobby groups.
The joy of architecture
What a pleasure it was last week to co-host (with Jeremy Melvin) the above-mentioned WAFX Award presentations, with 12 practices from across the globe presenting their designs, then taking part in discussions with us and our studio guests about inspirational futures.
Unusually, three of the 12 winners are located in the Philippines – one related to food, one to construction technology, and one to water. The latter, by architects WTA, is a spectacular proposition about relieving pressure on the city of Manila by creating an offshore island which will comprise about 10 per cent of the city’s land area and provide 50 per cent of its amenity space. The city and a local developer are in a jv to carry out the project, which includes three canals, two cut through the development to create three islands out of one, the other running through the middle of the 4.5km development.
The enthusiasm and drive of architect William Ti was very apparent, as indeed was the case with all the presenters. It was a reminder of the power of architecture and design to lift the spirits, whatever difficult political and economic circumstances we may face.