Digital Wood

Brick, Concrete, Steel, Stone, Wood. Of these commonly used building materials, wood is the only one that was a living thing directly prior to its use in a building. Embedded within trees’ success as biological, living things, are variation, redundancy, and imperfections.  While its abundance, structural properties and relative manipulability have made wood widely popular as a building material, it is the total result of the biology – the smell, the texture, and the appearance, that we truly cherish. Interestingly, the appeal of concrete and steel lies in their uniformity and consistency as materials and effort is often spent manipulating their appearance while in wood, the appearance is the desired feature and the effort goes into devising a way in which to make it perform more uniformly. As we enter an age of digital construction and fabrication, with compound wood materials allowing for consistent properties and milling technology allowing for complete manipulation of solid wood, it seems clear that while the notion of appropriate application of wood may shift, its qualities that appeal to our senses, or its character, will remain.

A contemporary project, Snohetta’s Wild Reindeer Foundation info pavilion embodies these conflicting, yet appealing notions of wood. Located in Davrefjell National Park the design of the shelter is based on a contrast between a rigid outer shell of weathered steel and a soft organic-shaped inner core of wood.1 Snohetta’s description of the building says the shelter’s simple form and use of natural building materials reference the local building traditions.2 And at the same time, new technologies have been utilized to bring modern efficiency to the fabrication process. The wood core has been manufactured using a large-scale robot-controlled milling machine based on digital 3d models.3

From a distance, the stacked wood core appears as a solid, organically shaped core. At close range, one realizes that the curving shape is made of large wood timbers stacked parallel to one another. The smooth wood interior seems warm and inviting, rich in texture and likely in smell. However, upon continued inspection, the wood structure is confusing. The parallel stacking of the wood timbers seems excessive for covering the seating area in wood. Additionally, their arrangement does not take full advantage of the structural properties of wood. At times, the huge timbers seem to defy gravity and hang out with no apparent support. A look at a section through the building reveals the physical truth of the structure. The heavy timbers are supported by a framed out skeleton structure beneath them. While Norwegian ship building techniques may have been used to attach the timbers to one another, the entirety of the timbers are acting as a thick skin to a supporting structure underneath.

While the wood used in the Wild Reindeer Foundation pavilion has been effectively “controlled” through the entire design through precise milling and removal of its structural duties, its character properties remain. And those character properties are tied to properties we assume to be true about the wood. By revealing the use of large heavy timbers and hiding the substructure so that it appears a solid stack of timbers has been beautifully carved, the user is provided with a tactilely satisfying and seemingly authentic experience that may only come under question by those of us looking at the design drawings.

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