Rose Martin picks up a copy of William Hall’s latest block buster, which frames the building materials that make up our world. This time he concentrates on timber.

Even the cover of this stunning, coffee table book has the texture of wood, the material that is the subject of the latest volume from William Hill, and follows on his successful overview of other basic construction materials in Concrete and Brick.

And in the first paragraph of an introduction by Richard Mabey, (broadcaster and journalist who covers the conjunction between nature and culture), the essence is encapsulated in the story of an freak event some years ago when a 200-year beech was blown over onto a 400-year old timber-framed farmhouse in Mabey’s village.

“No one was hurt, but the whole building was skewed sideways and looked as if it had been impaled by the tree. The scene became a brief source of wonder in the district, a rare case of beech trumping oak.”

And there might have ended the long life of a vernacular and historic oak building until the beech was sawn up and winched off the farmhouse:

“...within a matter of hours, the house had sprung back to its previous shape. Some of the rafters had split, but the beams in the main timber frame had simple flexed at their joints and had resumed their balanced posture once the pressure was relieved.”

Wood Uchronia at Burning Man, Black Rock Desert, Nevada, USA, Arne Quinze, 2006.
Wood Uchronia at Burning Man, Black Rock Desert, Nevada, USA, Arne Quinze, 2006.

This is the essence of wood, maintains, Mabey, it’s jack-in-the box flexibility that sets it above all other man-made materials. And in his own introduction, William Hall cites Le Corbusier’s decision to retreat to a little cabin at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, (the same location where he had previously daubed all over Eileen Gray’s house), and suggests the father of Modernism and Brutalism found something lacking and in the end, was drawn to wood — that most harmonious of materials.

Words are slight in this hefty tome, Hall instead allows the buildings to speak from its pages. Structures like wooden Viking churches in Norway with their intricate carvings, to a modern, butterfly-graceful bamboo lodge in Bali to the stunning Spanish pavilion for the Shanghai Expo in wicker.

This is a personal and wonderfully illustrated collection of images of buildings and structures from all over the world, with just one thing in common — a natural, cellular materiality. This is the kind of book that the carpenter will love, the architect will peruse and the general reader will be inspired by — it’s an eye-opening introduction to the most powerful, most flexible and most sustainable of all construction materials. It was the very first material we used as a species, (earliest examples of wooden floors are found as far back as 8,500 BC, says Hall), and we are still working with this springly, warm material today.

Grotto Sauna, Ontario, Canada, Partisans Architecture, 2014.
Grotto Sauna, Ontario, Canada, Partisans Architecture, 2014.

Wood is a visually stunning celebration of some of the world’s best timber architecture over the last 1,000 years, highlighting the beauty of a material that enriches our everyday lives. Spanning the globe, the projects encompass churches, monuments, cultural spaces and more — from Renzo Piano’s otherworldly Jean-Marie Tijbaou Cultural Centre, (above)to Hopkin’s Architects’ London Olympics’ Velodrome, (wittily renamed The Pringle), to FAO’s sprawling timber landscape for Yokohama port terminal, Japan, to Le Corbusier’s humble cabin.

Every luxe image includes key information — text is tight and instead, the readers is allowed to luxuriate in the quality of the photography, the sheer technical brilliance of some projects and the soothing, warm familiarity of ancient wooden buildings, from the Hansel and Gretel houses of Germany, to the quirky tree church of France and the clear span roof profile of Westminster Hall, all haunted by history.

The projects are thematically grouped in chapters such as Texture, Juxtaposition, Landscape and Light, and graphic designer William Hall brings his art to a package that is not just beautifully-made and beautifully-collated, but is accessible, easy and democratic. This is a wonderful book for the average reader— and anyone with an interest in home, or space, or life or sustainability, will be taken by its content.

Well worth the €35 or so — and a wonderful and thoughtful present for anyone who appreciates, art, craft, environment, architecture and interiors.

Timber - What life is made of

  • Wood By William Hall Published by Phaidon on sale now at €35 (£29.95)


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