WOOD – a long lived tradition
“Sweden is synonymous with timber.”
Sweden is synonymous with timber. It mines iron ore too, and in such quantities that the very bedrock beneath the city of Kiruna is at risk of collapsing, with the entire community having to shift east. But it is timber that thaws out frozen souls. Its honey glow is soothing. And from the air you can hardly see the towns for all the trees.
Most of this timber goes to sawmills. There it is sawn or planed into planks for the construction industry. It is an industry that previously built only small scale – the little red cottage is for Sweden what the skyscraper is for the USA – but which today has its sights fixed on large constructions and
This renaissance has one main explanation. Towards the end of the 19th century a law was passed in Sweden forbidding the building of wooden apartment blocks taller than two floors. Concrete became the norm and wood was turned into paper pulp, and it was only in 1994, a good 100 years later, that the law was repealed. Nowadays, according to the Swedish Wood Building Council, some ten to 15 per cent of all new apartment blocks are in wood. And the figure increases year by year. From an ecological perspective this is of course a measure that makes sense – timber is both a renewable and recyclable resource.
But also from an architectural point of view; judging by the large number of progressive timber projects on architects’ drawing boards, the corps have long yearned for this chance to exploit the medium’s ductile and tactile properties. The most original instances are to be found in small-scale projects – private houses and holiday cottages, modernist interpretations of traditional building techniques. No dragons’ heads crowning roof ridges here but gable roofs and rib flange facades still prevail, often accompanied by unconventional window arrangements, open plan interiors and intimate respect for the surrounding terrain.
Craftsmanship is strongly noticeable, together with the experimental urge that comes with it. But today even large-scale projects are breaking new ground. The poor man’s architecture has been replaced by a more hi-tech approach and several local authorities are making their mark in wood.
It is hardly surprising if well forested districts choose to build most of their major structures in timber, but now the Swedish capital itself is joining the throng. Such prizewinning architectural firms as Wingårdhs and Tham & Videgård are now competing for the chance to erect the world’s tallest timber building, 20 to 22 storeys high.
The idiom is cutting edge, the towers rising up delicate as latticed espaliers. But the construction technique is almost ancient.
By looking back Swedish architects are leading the way forward.