We have known for a long time that timber and clever engineering can work together.
You only need to think of Cullinan's gridshell at the Weald and Downland Museum, or the lamella roof at Hounslow Underground Station. But this concept moves forward a stage when you see architects like Foster and Partners not only designing in timber, but also bringing to their timber design the same type of advanced thinking that they are using on projects like Swiss Re.
From Swiss Re to the Swiss mountains is quite a severe change of scene, but it is delightful to think that the Gherkin and the Chesa Futura apartment building (see pages 4-9) are linked not only by an architect, but also by their embrace of parametric design. This is one of the computer techniques celebrated in the eye-opening Digital Fabricators exhibition that was organised by the Building Centre Trust and shown at Interbuild. By setting up a series of equations to describe a structure, the architect finds their imagination freed by mathematics. Put simply, parametric modelling makes it as easy to play around with complex curved forms as it is with rectilinear ones. It finally puts paid to the notion that having once devised a complex shape and worked with the engineer to ensure that it will stand up, the architect will be too exhausted to change it.
What makes Chesa Futura even more delicious is that it not only combines this advanced mathematical approach with timber, but also marries it to some very old-fashioned craftsmanship. The building is clad in larch shingles, cut and placed by a family that has been doing this for generations.
Until recently, this level of Swiss skill was matched in the UK by the legendary skills of Gordon Cowley, who was behind nearly every imaginative timber project, whether Alsop's Peckham Library or Gehry's Maggie's Centre. Sadly, with the failure of Cowley's business, the UK has lost a vein of skills as exciting as the latest advances in computer technology. Let us hope that more skilled craftspeople emerge with the ability and will to match the desires of architects' unfettered imaginations.