GAM 17


Tom Kaden, Daniel Gethmann, Petra Eckhard

“We must stop building with concrete!”[1] demands the climate researcher Joachim Schellnhuber, calling for an imminent, direly needed revolution in architecture, the idea being to quickly replace CO2-intensive building materials like steel and concrete with timber or bamboo. One of his most recent studies,2 conducted in collaboration with an international team of researchers from the Yale School of Forestry and with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, proves that a building culture focused on timber would lead to a significant drop in CO2 emissions on a global scale and thus to a more stable climate. However, this scenario, in which the use of timber as a building material must to be greatly stepped up, is only possible and feasible when forests of the future are cultivated carefully and sustainably. GAM.17 addresses this demand and examines how such a process of fundamentally rethinking our use of resources and materials can take place in the context of architecture.

In order to reconcile the expanded ecological contexts of timber construction with contemporary architectural perspectives on timber as a future-oriented (building) material, GAM.17 finds it necessary to first liberate the concept of this material from the one-dimensional notion of it being a simple resource easily obtainable anywhere. Viewing timber as a mere material, without taking its economic, cultural, and political dimensions into account, does not in fact make sense in the long term, aside from the basic question of how to make it available. It is for this reason that GAM.17 assumes that wood as a material, like its use, is tied to cultural traditions and that timber, as the object of its own industrial form and economy, also has a political history. It follows that, when it comes to the architectural use of wood, definite importance is placed on the business cycles in which the production and use of timber are economically integrated. It seems necessary to question the industrialization of silviculture, considering that it has led to a greater vulnerability to extreme weather conditions caused by climate change; but also to contrast the economic boom that timber as a building material is currently experiencing, even in urban contexts, with a historical analysis of its cultural appropriations and its attributions of meaning.

GAM.17 raises the broader question of whether timber as a substance and building material is able to help achieve a decarbonization of the construction industry as is currently being discussed under the umbrella term of sustainability. It is also vital to question whether the sustainability discussion that is so often associated with wood as a material actually signifies a leap forward, or whether it in fact obscures other possible farreaching solutions. The contributions compiled in this issue of GAM thus all reevaluate timber in its role as an architectural material and examine its potential for furthering a sustainable construction industry—from the vantage point of cultural history, ecology, trade policy, structural design, and aesthetics.

GAM.17 opens with contributions that delve into the cultural-historical relevance of timber. Stephan Trüby approaches the topic of wood from a historical and political perspective, placing a critical focus on “German silvipolitics,” which has taken various forms—ranging from right-wing populist (architectural-theoretical) manifestations during the nineteenth century to Heimatschutz movements in the twentieth century to contemporary right-wing ecological projects. The cartoonist Tom Körner then presents a small, outstanding selection of his comic series from the daily newspaper TAZ. This series, steeped in tradition, articulates—through ever-new, cheeky variants of tree hugging—how loved German forests are. Anselm Wagner describes the general change in image experienced by timber construction in Central Europe from ancient times through the nineteenth century and also extending up to the present day. Citing the example of Peter Zumthor, he elucidates the material turn pursued by architecture, which understands the discipline no longer only conceptually but also in terms of materials. This is followed by a reprint of a conference paper by Reyner Banham from 1972, which offers an insightful, occasionally amusing retrospective view of timber’s history of culture and meaning, while also touching on its more efficient successor in the construction industry, imitation wood. It is in the latter’s “perfected reincarnations” that Banham sees a yearning anchored in North American culture for the disappearing, “unreliable” tree wood. This text leads into the second section of GAM.17, which deals with the material qualities of wood and its significance for the practice of contemporary architecture and building.

The question of when timber construction is actually timber construction is at the center of the text by Anne Isopp. She identifies hybrid buildings, that is, the use of timber combined with other materials, as holding the greatest potential for the future, especially for multistory architecture, and substantiates this claim by example of the timber-concrete composite ceiling. This is followed by a contribution by Stefan Winter, who discusses six key critical questions related to wood as a building material. The answers to these questions aim to further advance timber construction and to demonstrate how, in a certain way, timber is superior to other building materials. By example of pavilions developed at Graz University of Technology, Urs Hirschberg shows how digital methods can be used to derive a structural design logic directly from the material. He argues that digitalization not only leads to a better understanding of timber’s material qualities but also facilitates the refinement of timber in terms of design and production. In the subsequent interview with Kai Strehlke, who is in charge of digital processes at the Swiss timber construction firm Blumer Lehmann, it becomes clear how complex free-form timber projects, such as the new Swatch headquarters in Biel by Shigeru Ban, were developed and implemented with a special eye to materials. Based on a branchwork roof derived from the “ramified resource of the forest,” Jens Ludloff illustrates how timber construction is capable of generating an innovative, sustainably experienceable spatial vocabulary—a design concept founded on the synergy between ecology, forestry, and the construction industry. Lastly, the visual essay by Formafantasma (Andrea Trimarchi & Simone Farresin) marks the transition to the third section of this issue of GAM, referencing the ecological and political responsibility inherent to an architectural handling of wood. In the scope of the comprehensive exhibition Cambio, their photographs tell of the complex material history of the 13 million trees toppled by the 2018 catastrophic storm in Italy’s Fiemme Valley, and of the local citizens’ efforts to process all of the wood.

The third part of GAM.17 contains contributions that situate wood as a material in a broader nexus of relations among environmental protection, the timber industry, and chains of commerce. This section is opened by a series of photos by Don Fuchs portraying the destructive magnitude of the Gospers Mountain bushfire northwest of Sydney, Australia. At the same time, it impressively visualizes both the fragility and the regenerative power of timber. Laila Seewang, in turn, writes about the vital role that forests as an ecosystem can play in the context of architecture, localizing a so-called “timber territory” in the Northwest of the United States, where wood is not seen merely as a material but rather as a complex infrastructure. This is followed by a contribution by Francesca Zanotto, who exposes the conditions of exploitation and questionable practices in the global timber trade, thus showing how architecture is able to expand its field of activity and contribute to a fair use of wood as a natural resource. The importance of the macroscopic analysis of wood is explained by Alan Crivellaro and Flavio Ruffinatto, which is able to identify the actual type and origin of commercial timber samples by evaluating their cell structure. Wood possesses specific characteristics that, when precisely analyzed, encourage us to rethink our one-dimensional understanding of timber as a material as is currently prevalent today. With this in mind, we hope you will have an inspiring reading experience. ■


(Translation: Dawn Michelle d’Atri)




1 Joachim Schellnhuber in conversation with Benedikt Narodoslawsky, “Klimaschutz wird nicht honoriert,” Falter, November 24, 2020, 18–29, esp. 19.

2 See Galina Churkina, Alan Organschi, Christopher P. O. Reyer, Andrew Ruff, Kira Vinke, Zhu Liu, Barbara K. Reck, T. E. Graedel, and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, “Buildings as a Global Carbon Sink,” NatureSustainability 3 (2020): 269–276.