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Not seeing the wood for the trees

The 12th International Alvar Aalto Symposium − which focused on timber construction − had some wonderful speakers, but the theme was far too narrow

Fascination with the sinking of the Titanic resides in the fact that, at some level, it is recognised as symbolically predictive of the current systemic collapse of global civilisation, as particularly evident in the environment, economy and exhaustion of resources. But although the looming iceberg is clearly visible to all, we still sail full steam ahead, or try to regain this course when buffeted by the clear warnings from a disturbed climate and financial meltdown. Although the environmental design professions are embracing the narrowly technical measures of sustainable design, they have omitted the broader rethink also required. Hence architectural conferences generally ignore ‘big picture’ reappraisals to merely rearrange the deckchairs, as in this year’s Alvar Aalto Symposium in Jyväskylä, Finland (10-12 August).

The title − ‘Crafted: The Ingredients of Architecture’ − suggests such inadequacies, with the non sequitur relationship of ‘crafted’ and ‘ingredients’ and the reductionism implied by this conjunction. Title and speakers were chosen by symposium chairman Pekka Heikkinen, professor of Wood Construction at Aalto University. This academic role was reflected in the inclusion of presentations by Design and Build studios of three eminent architectural schools − Aalto University, Munich’s Technical University and London’s Architectural Association (the student consensus was that they learnt more from these studios than from the rest of their studies) − and in a bias among chosen speakers to those working in wood. But craft is not confined to using non-industrial materials. Nor does using wood necessitate much craft, as for instance with cross laminated timber (CLT) panels in works shown by Alex de Rijke, principal in dRMM architects and Dean of Architecture at London’s Royal College of Art, in a talk provocatively titled ‘Timber is the New Concrete’. Just as the 19th century was the age of iron and the 20th of concrete, so the 21st will be of CLT.

Although still narrow, craft − rather than crafted − was a potentially fruitful topic, particularly if informed by local architect-academic Juhani Pallasmaa’s book The Thinking Hand. This emphasises that craft concerns the development of the craftsman as much as the material or medium being worked, thus introducing the subjective dimension generally suppressed by modernity. Discussing this could counterbalance Postmodernity’s elevation of concept over craft, as in conceptual art and architecture, and in particular theory-driven ‘critical’ architecture. These desperately need the grounding, deepening and sensual presence, all necessary to prolonged engagement, that craft brings.

Concept over craft was tellingly illustrated in the first evening’s opening talk by Bjarne Mastenbroek of Amsterdam-based SeARCH, although this did not apply to his best work, the Dutch Embassy in Addis Ababa. Many of the works shown were excitingly provocative, but all belong to the post Rem Koolhaas strain of Postmodern Dutch conceptualism that illustrates sometimes startling scenarios − particularly in a project for ski lodges in St Moritz heated by the cattle also housed − but ultimately will be judged a sunset effect of the waning modern era.

Among the second day’s presentations were the strikingly different work, with contrasting approaches to craft, of Richard Kroeker of Nova Scotia and Swiss engineer Jürg Conzett. The former has studied and updated local construction methods, respecting the traditions of the indigenous peoples, and climaxing in the Pictou Landing health centre for a Mi’kmaq community. The work may not be to everybody’s aesthetic tastes but is entirely laudable in intention and execution. Conzett is best known for highly refined, minimalist bridges that push pared-down construction to new limits. He focused mainly on a single pedestrian bridge, the problems encountered and their solutions, his presentation a delight not only for what he said and showed but also for the boyish awe and enthusiasm displayed.

That day’s presentations ended with Kjetil Thorsen of Snøhetta. Although designing compelling art objects is a problematic trend in contemporary architecture, this was an enjoyably polished presentation making many good points. These included the necessity for social as well as technical sustainability and the need, particularly in a big practice such as Snøhetta, to craft its working processes to draw out the best in everybody working collaboratively, and so ensure creative freshness. One such process is ‘transpositioning’, whereby colleagues are required to swap their habitual behaviours.

Alan Organschi of Gray Organschi Architecture opened the third day with the most substantial presentation by an academic-practitioner. Organschi teaches at Yale, is a trained cabinet maker and also runs the JIG Design Build workshop alongside the practice’s office. He is thus both craftsman and intellectual; but his talk was too ambitious for the time allocated, so too dense for ready comprehension. If published, readers could grasp it better. Following were two contrasting presentations: Marcos Acayaba of São Paulo, Brazil, showed wood-framed houses resting on a few piles on steeply wooded slopes − convincingly apt responses to local constraints; and Anu Puustinen and Ville Hara of Helsinki-based Avanto Architects, showed the finely crafted Chapel of St Lawrence in Vantaa.

The conference closed with a dazzling, enchanting presentation by Takahara and Yui Tezuka, who have taken branding to an extreme, he always in blue shirts, she in red, daughter in green and son in yellow. The first project shown was a flexibly partitioned house under a gently inclined roof, onto which each member of the family has a personal rooflight access, and where much family life is lived. This led to the gently inclined habitable roof as a dominant feature of the oval Fuji kindergarten (AR August 2007). Videos confirmed this as a triumph in function and in the cheerfully active spirit conferred on the school. Other projects were shown, but the house and school stand out in the memory. Their simplicity, and the spontaneity and multiplicity of functions this sponsors, are potent indictments of contemporary architecture’s formal excesses that do nothing to enhance the life of the users − a rousing conclusion to an enjoyable but inconsequential conference.

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