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BOOK

REVIEW

Wood Architecture By Ruth Slavid.

Laurence King, 2005. 240pp. £35 The idea of exploring contemporary architecture through its primary materiality is promising. Ruth Slavid's Wood Architecture is the third such work published by Laurence King, following Catherine Croft's Concrete Architecture (AJ 17.03.05) and David Dernie's New Stone Architecture (AJ 11.03.04). Like them, the book gathers together a collection of current buildings to show the best of contemporary practice in its particular material.

At risk of pedantry, I must ask why 'wood' is preferred to 'timber' in the title. The Oxford English Dictionary defines 'wood' as 'the hard fibrous material that forms the main substance of the trunk or branches of a tree', whereas 'timber' is 'wood prepared for use in building and carpentry'. As in the other books in the series, an introductory chapter sets out some general themes relating to the nature, history, application and technology of wood/timber.

Then come seven chapters that collect the examples together under distinct headings.

The introduction makes the case for wood/timber as a 'sustainable' material by comparing its embodied energy content with that of steel and aluminium. The potential of 'new' methods of fabrication and use, such as glulam, laminates, sheet products and composites, and the use of unseasoned wood/timber and timber in combination with other materials - 'mix and match' - are summarised. The material's subjective qualities, its warmth and tactility, are offered as an important part of its enduring appeal. All of this is useful, if lightweight.

The principal chapters have the following titles:

'In Touch with Nature', 'Modern Vernacular', 'Inspired Pragmatism', 'A Sense of Place', 'Inside Story', 'Pushing Technology' and 'Changing Views'. These establish the book's approach. It is predominantly subjective rather than objective, lyrical rather than technical, descriptive rather than analytical. In itself this emphasis is fine and the chosen buildings are, almost without exception, full of interest. But so much more could have been drawn out of the material if it had been organised and illustrated with a little more technical and analytical rigour.

All of the buildings use timber in one way or another, but what is it that defines them as 'wood architecture'? It is difficult to imagine any practical modern building that doesn't use timber in one or more ways in its structure or construction or cladding or finishes. Why, then, are these particular buildings selected and why are they placed in one category rather than another? Peter Zumthor's Swiss Pavilion at the Hanover Expo, with its stacks of timber baulks stabilised by steel ties, is absolutely of timber, but why is it in 'Modern Vernacular' rather than, say, 'A Sense of Place' or 'Pushing Technology'?

Steven Holl's lovely 'Y House' in the Catskills combines a delicate, exposed steel frame with board-clad, balloon frame-like, external walls. This is hardly unusual in American domestic construction and it could be at home in almost any of the categories. Roberto

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