If you have spent any time in London or Milan over the past few years, you will probably have been aware of the artistic collaborations with which AHEC (American Hardwood Export Council) has been involved. This will particularly be the case if you have taken part in the London Design Festival or the Fiera (Milan’s furniture fair) where most of these collaborations have taken place.
They have ranged from substantial pavilions and structures to furniture and decorative objects. But their seemingly disparate nature masks a number of common threads. The first of these is talent. Whether the work was with students at the start of their careers, as was the case in a recent collaboration with the Royal College of Art, or with those who were just establishing themselves, such as a young David Adjaye when he designed the Sclera pavilion in 2009, or established figures such as Amanda Levete and Alison Brooks, all had an attitude of enquiry and an innovative and beautiful aesthetic. They were all the kind of designers who relished the opportunity to use their imagination, unfettered by some day to day requirements, whether they were designing a temporary structure to sit in front of a Prada store in Milan or a series of pencil sharpeners to be used on Norman Foster’s various desks. Each had their own perspective, whether it was furniture maker Sebastian Cox who relishes an economy of materials or architect Alex de Rijke who has pioneered the use of ready-made timber components.
The other important aspect, which meshes perfectly with the aspirations of the designers, is that the collaborations should inform, and they should inform three groups of people: the designers involved with the projects, the design community at large, and the general public.
The designers working with the materials will enhance their understanding in ways that they can take on to future projects. So, the RCA graduates who took part in the Out of the Woods project, not only learnt about timbers with which they may have been unfamiliar but also received a valuable lesson in measuring environmental impacts which one hopes they will take on and use throughout long and successful careers. Alex de Rijke, who pioneered the use of tulipwood CLT on the Endless Stair, subsequently specified it for the Maggie’s Centre that he designed.
The most important collaborator of all may have been Arup, the engineering practice. Whereas AHEC has deliberately worked with the widest range of designers possible, Arup has been a consistent supporter. Sometimes this has meant simply providing advice from well within its own areas of expertise, such as helping a product designer understand the issues involved in making a shed structurally stable. But at other times it has pushed forward its own knowledge and that of the professions. This started in earnest on permanent structures, Portcullis House in 2000 and Haberdashers’ Hall in 2002, both designed by Hopkins Architects and pioneering the structural use of American white oak. This resulted in the production of design standards that allowed the material to be used more widely.
In a similar vein, Arup’s work on the structural use of tulipwood CLT, first on the Endless Stair and then on The Smile, is establishing parameters that others will be able to use.
The professions at large can appreciate the innovations that have taken place, and by seeing what their peers are doing may well indulge in their own fresh thinking, specifying new timbers or timbers that they already know in unfamiliar ways.
And the general public, while in many cases having a less sophisticated understanding, will see what can be done and be excited by new possibilities. In time some of them may even commission their own buildings.
Despite the diversity of the projects, one can see a couple of common strands running through them. One is sustainability, whether it is through the desire to promote the use of less popular but common timbers, to improve the utilisation of forests, or through detailed analysis of environmental impacts. The other is structural innovation, to show the ways in which timbers that were often considered to be primarily of use in furniture and panelling can play a vital and exciting part in contemporary architecture.
Many of these collaborations have had a limited physical life, but their influence can extend way beyond their lifetime – through their documentation in words, images and videos, and through the knowledge and memories acquired by those who have experienced them, read about them or even designed them.