Twenty Years of Wood Studio

What to make of all this making?

Wood Studio Cube
Philip Tidwell, one of the tutors at Aalto University's renowned Wood Program, discusses the program, its approach, its history and its' cross-disciplinary relevance for architecture, engineering and the wider world of wood material studies

Considering the wide spectrum of architectural practice and research today, a sufficiently broad definition of the discipline is difficult to come by. New materials, techniques, and computational platforms are reshaping design practice and placing new demands on architectural education. As the field expands, it confronts new problems and defines new limits for our work. At the same time, it returns to basic questions of architecture: What does it mean to build? How do materials influence form? How can an architect be educated?

The Wood Program at Aalto University responds to these conditions in a way that is at once highly specific and surprisingly broad. Operating for nearly 20 years (first in Finnish, now in English) the program has developed an approach to architectural education that focuses on a specific material (rather than say a technology or building type) in order to present a view of architecture that is intimately connected to history, engineering, material science and ecology. Beginning with a single tree in the Finnish forest and culminating 9 months later with the realization of a small experimental structure, the curriculum requires students to move constantly between classrooms, design studios, laboratories and workshops. In each of these contexts they encounter differing perspectives on their work and on the role of the material in the design of buildings.

Of course this material foundation for learning refers not only to wood, but also to the basic physicality of architecture and the engagement of the body in design education. Through numerous full scale exercises, students experiment with the systems, techniques, and processes of production. They feel the weight of material in their own hands. They discover how it bends and cracks, what kind of surface it has and how strong it is in different directions. The aim is not to master conventional practices but instead to develop a more specific understanding of the limits of the material. Rather than produce educated carpenters, the Wood Program aims to develop a conception of construction as a means of architectural invention—a particular manner of thinking and working. Design (architectural and otherwise) is presented as a synthetic mode of thinking that extends outside the boundaries of any one discipline.

Structure of the Program

Extending over two semesters, the Wood Program consists of lecture courses, excursions, seminars, and design studios that address a variety of scales. Courses in Wood Technology present the biological and chemical properties of the material as well as the various products made from it. Lectures in the department of architecture and engineering examine the use of wood in buildings, interiors and structural systems. Excursions to production facilities and buildings provide an opportunity to see industrial scale production while history and theory seminars look at the practice of architecture in relation to these issues.

In the design studio these various perspectives are brought to bear on one another. The fall semester begins with a series of simple but evocative design tasks at full scale: a cubic volume, a simple joint, and finally a wooden skeleton and skin. First individually and then in small groups, each assignment begins with a short analysis and then proceeds through drawings, models and prototypes. Although abstract in purpose and function, the projects become concrete through fabrication and allow students to gain familiarity with different species, treatments, processes and tools in the workshop. The work requires planning and communication, but it also demonstrates the necessity of making mistakes.

Simultaneous to these exercises, students are asked to develop an entry for a design competition that concludes the fall term. After a final review and evaluation of the proposals, one project is chosen for development and construction in the spring. This is the central component of the program and perhaps the most difficult and at the same time inspiring part of the year. After the initial selection of the project concept, the various problems and possibilities of the design are evaluated and solutions are developed through numerous alternatives. As any former student will confirm, the work can be frustrating but at the same time deeply rewarding. The continual process of testing and research invariably brings forward issues, opportunities and solutions that we could not possibly foresee in our normal operations.

This sort of intensive design work, in which a focused team develops each detail of a small building project, is rarely possible in architectural practice. Professional fees afford little time or money for models, mock-ups, and laboratory tests. But these techniques are an essential part of the design process and the educational foundation of the Wood Program curriculum. Each building project usually serves some public need, but it is primarily an opportunity to push the limits of our knowledge and expertise.

Students

Any building project is a team effort, and the Wood Program is as much about working together as it is about wood. Each project is overseen by a lead designer, but none is realized without the help of all students in the group. Accepting responsibility for every aspect of the design, documentation, construction and  transportation requires that students work in teams and communicate effectively. Careful coordination of details, material orders, fabrication and assembly is required to deliver the project by the beginning of summer. Through extensive collaboration and teamwork, students learn more from each other (and from themselves) than they do from their instructors. And of course their instructors learn from them as well.

The Wood Program opens a window onto the many possibilities of timber construction, but it also presents an important way of thinking about design with any material. Rather in wood, concrete, steel or any other material, architecture demands competence, skill and sensitivity. We try to inspire students to enter deeply into the experience and life of the material and to develop design through continuous questioning, study and work.

 

Philip Tidwell is an architectural and graphic designer practicing in Helsinki and New York. His work and research focus on the intersection of climate, culture and materiality, particularly in the Nordic countries. He organizes the Aalto University Wood Program alongside Professor of Wood Architecture Pekka Heikkinen.

For further information about Wood Program see arkkitehtuuri.tkk.fi/engl/woodprog