WOOD. The Cyclical Nature of Materials, Sites and Ideas shows how the numerous products from forests carry traces of all these, often conflicting interpretations. WOOD displays seven catagories of work from contemporary designers, presented in a context of historical, cultural and societal references.
Between the smallest scale — that of a toothpick from the collection of Ernst van der Hoeven — and the aerial photograph of the chequerboard pattern of forests in the state of Montana, lies a whole spectrum of wood and its omnipresence in our lives. That world was carefully documented in the book Houtkunde (‘Wood Skill’) in 18th-century Amsterdam. And in the centuries before and since it has constantly generated new forms of buildings, bridges, ships, utensils and works of art.
Forestry is a good business. The understanding that forest design can yield profits has been for many years an important cornerstone in regional and national economies. However, in the era of economic globalisation, it is large corporations that now dominate, operating through mergers and acquisitions to beat their rivals with new technologies, exceptional products, or better market position. In this transnational struggle, control of land and resources is key for global leadership. Every aspect of planting, felling, processing and distributing wood — from the smallest genetic manipulation up to transport logistics spanning the globe — is designed to maximize revenue. The need to harvest more fuels a technological arms race between companies that cut down trees on difficult terrain, on ecologically sensitive sites, and even underwater. Transforming trees into lumber requires compliance with regulations and industry standards to allow its introduction as product. Transporting wood to markets demands sophisticated infrastructure. As an ever-changing source of products such as paper, biomass and hardwood floorboards, the forest no longer presents a classic image of pure nature. It is first and foremost an economic entity that adapts constantly to changes in the marketplace. In this process, ‘man-made’ and ‘natural’ lost their meaning, and the natural cycles of growth become one with the cycles of the economy.
Downfall and Return
Primeval forests are disappearing all over the planet. Over the past decade alone, more than 1.3 million square kilometres of forest have vanished. Such massive deforestation has grave consequences for our climate and for the survival of living organisms and the communities they form. Human action is a major cause of this. However, if we look to certain places, forests are making a return. Reversing the decline process will therefore have to involve human intervention as well, in order to create new conditions and new opportunities for forests, for example in desert regions and around post-industrial ruins. But humans are not the only cause of damage; agents such as fires, beetles and worms — in other words, nature itself — contribute much to forest destruction. Here too, nature demonstrates how the forest can force a comeback on its own terms, as it has done around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Perhaps this ambivalence can lead to a new balance in which we humans rid ourselves of guilt. Maybe we will then see how anachronistic is the distinction between our biome and ourselves.
Sanctuary Western civilization emerged out of the forest, and some believe that to the forest it will eventually return. The forest is an environment in which the individual can find shelter from everyday realities and discover his true self. The American writer Henry David Thoreau described the forest as ‘vigorous and free’. Fritz Todt, the engineer appointed by the Nazis to head the German motorway project, saw the forest as a reflection of national spirit. The French writer Proust compared the forest with the soul. Whether as backdrop or as political metaphor, the forest cultivates our individual or collective identity. Moreover, in the unspoilt simplicity of the forest we reconnect with our past and see signs of a better future. As such, the forest occupies a prominent place in our cultural imagination — as a subject for painters and poets, or as an Arcadian setting for fairy tale weddings. The primitive state of existence within it inspires architects and designers to borrow structures from nature, erect forest-like department stores, and build corporate headquarters that blur the distinction between their interiors and natural surroundings.
The forest has been a subject of scientific study at least since the 18th century. Attention initially centred on the study of single trees, but the field of research gradually broadened to include cutting methods, and the links between various management regimes, ecological disturbance patterns, and the specific biotic features in certain regions. With an eye on the development of revolutionary new materials, current research largely focuses on the microscopic scale of the cellulose crystal. However much wood is sawn or treated with varnish and fire-resistant chemicals, it always retains some of its organic qualities. Each piece of wood possesses unique characteristics and — depending on its environment — may grow and change in a different way, long after being removed from the forest. That ‘human’ quality seems key to our ambivalent relation with wood, as if one could use it to grow a house or one’s own body. It is a raw material like many others, but it is also a material with a distinct identity. The forest acts as an experimental ground for all sorts of scientific, quasi-scientific, and social experiments. It is precisely its peripheral location and relative isolation that allows those wishing to escape conventional norms and rules to test new social structures or extreme forms of entertainment. The same applies when the ethics of science or the voice of politics threaten to thwart research. That explains why experiments involving ‘torturing’ trees to increase their resistance in speculative, futuristic barren climates take place in the seclusion of the forest, or why secret plantations are the setting for tests on so-called ‘genetic forests’.
The growth rings of a tree mark the passage of time. Not only do they reveal how old the wood is, but their pattern also tells us about their origin. Wood contains a memory bank that provides a wealth of information for academics from many disciplines — from art historians to climate researchers. These time rings also draw inevitable parallels between trees and humans: their histories, their growth, and their inevitable death.