We need to move closer to wood to reap its enormous benefits.
Andrew Todd: "Trees, which provide us with oxygen and shelter, are political beings”
Based on a version originally published (in French) in Le Monde, 28th April 2021
Wood is our relation. It can guide us in our thinking, in our communication, in our education and in our politics, explains the architect in an article in "Le Monde".
François Hallé, botanist and designer of the splendid exhibition "Nous les arbres" (We the Trees) at the Fondation Cartier, and Michel Druilhe, president of [the national forestry and wood industry association] France Bois Forêts, leader of the forestry industry, are quarrelling without naming each other, the first in an article in Le Monde, the most recent of which was published on 21 March, and the second in Les Echos, in particular in a text published on 4 December 2020.
Without mentioning Francis Hallé's name, Michel Druilhe criticises the opinions of a "botanist biologist" opposed to the exploitation of forests for profit. He advocates (without giving figures) their "reasonable and sensible exploitation", provided that they are "planted and harvested with method". Francis Hallé wants to restrict logging to "monospecific plantations", leaving the "real forest" to evolve freely.
A sign of ecological progress
As an architect involved in wood construction, I hear these two voices in two opposite ears. Familiar with their respective worlds, it is as if I were walking around with a biophilosophy book in one hand - The Life of Plants, (Payot & Rivages, 2016) by the Italian philosopher Emanuele Coccia, for example - and an axe in the other, to achieve my professional actions. In Anglo-Saxon psychological jargon, it would appear that I am 'conflicted'.
This Hallé/Druihle conflict risks diverting our attention from more important issues. If we are concerned about from where the thousand multi-centennial oak trees are to be sacrificed to rebuild the roof frame of Notre-Dame, it is a sign of ecological progress: no one previously lamented for the destroyed beaches and the thousands of barrels of oil burnt to make the concrete of the Parc des Princes, for example. Nor for the ghostly wooden buildings - like an insect cocoon - that give shape to any building cast in concrete.
We should build more with wood - thus capturing CO2 - and reduce the proportion, 62% according to the FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization], of forest production that goes up in smoke or as pulp. According to Emanuele Coccia, "nature is constantly eating itself.” We all have to eat, but not stuff ourselves. And eat well, aware of our footprint.
Contemporary philosophy has turned its gaze from the navel of identity to these humble feet, and - more specifically - to the fragile living floor on which they walk. Bruno Latour has successively delivered two books that ask the question "where?" in their titles: Où atterrir? (La Découverte, 2017) and Où suis-je? (Empêcheurs de penser rond, 2021). He asks: where do I get my sustenance from? What is my soil? If the trees that make up this soil - and live off it - provide us with oxygen and shelter, they are, as a result, primordially political beings.
Stronger and cheaper than steel
Planting and harvesting them 'methodically' therefore goes far beyond agricultural and financial issues. At the same time, it is necessary to decide 'where', in which soil, to put any 'plantation' Hallé wishes to use to save the 'real’ forest.
Around my village in Burgundy, the Douglas fir trees planted in rows do not invite perambulation: nor by me, nor by the fauna, nor by other plants; and so it will be during their economic and biological maturation of at least fifty years. We can do better: live well with trees, accept their help: for example, in conditions that are innovative for us (but ancestral in Africa) such as agroforestry, favouring freshness, soil maintenance and production variety.
Wood is our relation. It can guide us in our thinking, in our communication, in our education and in our politics. Let us pay attention to it. Born of a desire to defy the earth's horizontality - rather like us - the cellular structure of wood rises towards the sun through the stiffness of columns of cells impregnated with lignin. It is this simplicity and lightness that gives it its useful qualities for us.
Its low density makes it suitable for use with the tools of the automotive industry. Four times lighter than concrete, it lends itself to the construction of complete living modules in millimetric robotic prefabrication, capable of travelling by truck to their locations in a building. Glued in thin lamellas, beech is stronger than steel for the same weight - and cheaper - for making elegant trusses.
These robots never work alone. Working with wood, or rather "woods" - hundreds of species with unique characteristics - requires a strong human understanding. This is learned, slowly, and requires an organisational effort (in France we lag behind, especially in education). Wood levels professional relationships, with architects, engineers and builders having to work in symbiosis and overlap rather than confrontation. Trees teach us about communication and understanding.
Michel Druilhe represents French trees, but I think that trees - unfortunately for him - do not care about borders. If I want an enduring wood for a facade, I'd do well to look to the northern soils with their slow-growing, dense-fleshed larches. If I want exceptionally hard and straight Hinoki cypress wood, I'll find it in Japan because these trees were planted there - too tightly - in the anguish following the Second World War. Trees have no country, but they are sensitive to our actions, and carry our history with their own. In Denmark, the King ordered the planting of vast quantities of oak to resupply his naval forces after a rout by the British in the 18th century. In 2017, the head of the forestry service sent an official letter to the Queen, saying 'your wood, Majesty, is now ready for use.'
Francis Hallé would like to see the price of wood stabilised so that it does not become "a luxury product". Yet wood has gained 112% in one year in the United States, partly due to strong "green" investments by tech giants. The madness of the markets can make chainsaws roar.
In the immense novel The Overstory Richard Powers tells how finance, in the 1990s, had signed the death warrant for the primordial forest on the US West Coast. I once asked him - not without trepidation - if he accepted wood in construction. "I don't mind," he told me with a slight smile, "as long as what you're doing is as miraculous as the being that allows you to do it."
Andrew Todd is an architect, including of the Elizabethan Theatre at Hardelot Castle (2018 World's Best Timber Building Award); he is advising Nordic Construction Company on its transition to timber construction.