In the winter of 1978, I had just graduated from architecture school. At one point in my search, I thumbed through the three industry magazines that showed the “best architects.” Arrogantly, I wrote to five of them, asking for a job. In that snail mail world, all but one responded, with three claiming “no available work” and one saying “maybe.”
The maybe was architect Louis Mackall. The Record House he designed was amazing, in that virtually every piece of it had been thoroughly considered, and many of those pieces were made by Louis himself. Louis makes things, usually in wood, and was about to start a second company, a woodworking shop with Ken Field, an exceptional craftsman. Eventually they called it Breakfast Woodworks, and I went to Connecticut later that year to work for both companies. I stayed for nine years.
That marriage was not just with these two great artists, but with a material. Wood is the most astonishing combination, a natural material that can be beautifully manipulated by humans. Wood is alive, then dead, but its corpus is an unending flashback to its origin story of growth.
Unlike the solidity of steel, the binary of reinforced concrete, the sheets of plastic, metal, coatings and membranes we weave and layer our buildings with, wood is a fundamental anomaly. No other material has the extraordinary complexities and simplicities of wood. You can assemble stones or cast things, such as brick or block. Assembling “engineered wood” simulates steel as a tinker toy. Casting concrete is a purely formal, outside-in creation, with an invisible skeleton of steel. But wood grows to become a building material, harvested, not mined, melted, mixed, or cast. And then it lives after death.
Most of construction is weaving disparate things, layered and connected into a quilt of various sensibilities. These joys of intricate choreography that all architects learn are not what I fell in love with when I was immersed in wood in 1978.
Only wood presents its organic state manipulated into new things that are both controlled and yet natural. Most construction materials are synthetic and layered and completely determined by engineers, architects, and builders. Wood left as wood and rendered into our creations combines engineering, aesthetics, and the glory of the natural world.
The extreme variety of wood’s species—involving grain, color, weatherability, weight, even the ability to connect—is delightfully rich. Its inherent and unending movement and interaction with light, air, and humidity is a virtual life after death. The essential nature of wood’s growth determines the essence of the characteristics it presents to all those who can see and touch it.
Except for the equatorial region, wood grows more in warmer, sunnier months, and less in cooler, darker months. Wood grows more when it gets rain, less when there’s drought. The landscape can almost magically contour to face the sun or turn away from it.
Those growth patterns create wood’s grain and coloring. Typically, wood is darker when it grows more slowly (“winter wood”) and lighter in the more rapid growth of the warmer season (“summer wood”). These rings reveal the innards of the tree. The strands that take water and nutrients up to leaves from the roots are the xylem; the phloem fibers bring nutrition formed by photosynthesis down through the tree, facilitating growth. Growing concentrically and cutting linearly exposes these rings, and the orientation can be an extreme dance of line and color, or regular, metered lines, paralleling the long cuts that define a stick of wood.
Diseases color and enrich wood that is later revealed in construction. Burls are basically cancerous tumors. When revealed in cutting, spalted maple has a spider web of black lines of infected and dead wood. Dead wood on a tree’s interior (pith) is a different color than the living wood at or near the perimeter of the tree. When the tree sprouts limbs or splits in growth, the concentric graining becomes a chorus of competing grain and color. Knots and crotches of grains are only revealed in the cutting of the wood.
All trees are over 20% water when felled, and all should be under 10% when worked. They must be dried. After drying, the wood still moves, continuously, all related to the direction of the exposed grain. Warping, cracking, and distortion happen and must be accommodated in how you combine and attach wood. The methods and rationales of applying finish (or not) are infinite.
When the wood is cut parallel to the trunk or limb’s length, the long direction moves very little, even when drying out, unless you pick wood that has no “flame” pattern of grain on its surface, called “flat sawn.” That radical movement is called “crossgrain,” which creates the warps and cracks we often see. But if the cut shows only straight lines of grain it is called “quarter-sawn,” and the wood is far more stable in all conditions.
Then there is end grain, where the tree is cut across its girth at 90 degrees to its bark, when the winter and summer wood is in a glorious celebration of the variation of the seasons. Crosscutting history and biology turns the human touch into a mirror of the natural world. Polishing a rock shows the layering of time. Grinding a concrete surface shows the essence of liquid becoming solid. But it is only wood that reveals growth.
Trees used as wood also reveal the effects of earth, light, water, time, even gravity. Raw logs show skin, milled boards show grain, “living edge” lines reveal the natural shape of growth. Slabs are literally the revealed carcass of a tree.
I have fully embraced wood in our own home, creating a barn of 33 different species. This week I took the 33 pieces milled from the 23 pieces we cut from one log of a 138-year-old sugar maple tree that died of blight three years ago. Those 23 pieces were air-dried under our home for 2½ years, and the resulting 33 pieces were finished by me to become flooring and countertops for installation on three sites.
That intimacy of touch, smell, and mutability are unique to wood and infuse my designs with a reality I cannot control, but that I can use. Rather than think of wood as a means to an abstracting end, the warp and woof of how wood grows and is then assembled, is celebrated. Grain is featured, not denied. Movement in humidity, weathering in light, protection in weather—all are part of every wood design.
Wood takes light, inside or out, and the light’s energy transforms its color, darkening, lightening, bleaching, all dependent on orientation and species.
Alone among materials, wood uniquely shows time. Everything gets dirty and visually changes. Paint fades, concrete weathers, steel rusts, copper, brass and bronze oxidizes, but those are constant evolutions. Wood takes light, inside or out, and the light’s energy transforms its color, darkening, lightening, bleaching, all dependent on orientation and species.
Wood also reveals weather. All materials are eroded by water and expand or contract when the temperature changes. But humidity moves wood in a continuum of expansion and contraction that is a dance with nature. Sun can destroy some woods, water others, but other woods are tolerant of both.
We can paint wood, but its grain and joints remain. We can stain wood, but that distortion is an application, not a transformation (one I personally loath, since wood has almost every tone without distortion). Architects have tried to freeze the natural world to the point of denying it. Flat roofs, flush walls, and sealed interiors are a kind of hubris that inevitably fails at being sustainable. Even plywood tries to freeze the natural variation and movement of wood, and often fails. Pretending to control the uncontrollable is a human failing. We do not want to get sick or die, we want our children to go to Harvard, we want to be rich—and architects want their buildings to be forever, completely, under their control.
Unless they work in wood.
All photos courtesy of Duo Dickinson Architects.