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Naturally, Wood (Selbstverständlich Holz)

In 1995, the Swiss architect Gion Caminada and structural engineer Jürg Conzett wrote a short essay for the magazine Archithese about the (then) new and continued building practices using wood in a small remote village called Vrin.

Early in the essay, Caminada offers to the reader, “Start where you left off in order to get a little further.”  In the case of Vrin, the village has been using a technique of wood construction called “Strickbau” (“knitting construction”) for centuries.  By examining this technique in the context of urban, social, aesthetic, and structural issues, Caminada and Conzett develop a case for a resurgence of energy in the village and for the culture of the surrounding area.

In the context of how we practice in 2023, the use of wood in mass timber and cross laminated timber construction systems may seem “new”, however, it’s important to recognize the shoulders these systems stand on by perhaps looking back to where things left off.

We keep these conversations close at hand in recognition of thoughts and ideas to build from and contribute to; always hoping “to getting a little further.”

Kevin Barden, 2023

Naturally, Wood1

Gion Caminada and Jürg Conzett, 1995

Vrin is the last village in Val Lumnezia2.  The majority of people living there are mountain farmers; there is a bit of trade, some craftsmen and almost no tourism.  Much is still the same as before with Romansh3 being the main language in the village and until recently, people built according to traditional knowledge and skills.  The most important material was – of course – wood, however, wood was not used “consciously”: rather, everything was wood, and wood was everything.

“Consciously” wood?  Even today, wood is the dominant building material in Vrin, however, its use is no longer a matter of self-evidence.  As the modern spectrum of materials is far too colorful, wood has a different appreciation than before.  In our synthetic world, wood is often thought of as nostalgic, and its use increasingly degenerates into something that is applied only as makeup.  Stepping over the wooden threshold becomes purely an atmospheric image, as one forgets that wood wants to actually be “used”.

Part and Whole

In Vrin, one of the few mountain villages that is actually still intact, a program was started around five years ago with the title: “Start where you left off in order to get a little further.”  The trigger was the fear that urban sprawl could happen as a result of doing something new in the village because the land development system had erred in the past and, like tourism, had had a lasting negative impact on the landscape.  The program in question now was about a political and social debate because according to studies made by Professor Peter Rieder at the Agricultural Institute of the ETH in Zürich, Vrin’s livelihood would continue to be based on agriculture in the foreseeable future.  So really this program wasn’t about wood perse, but rather about building projects which happen to be exclusively built with this material.

In the scenarios for the preservation of rural areas, there is of course no striving for consumption and luxury: in the mountains it is about survival.  This circumstance also determined the way in which the program was carried out.  There is a lot of narrowness in this, but perhaps just that measure points the way to a simplicity and functionality in “architecture for the place”.

For this program, it was possible to approach the whole thing all together and to eliminate conflicts of interest.  The building zones were also included in the overall plan; and as such, this move later turned out to be the most important measure of all.  In this way, the traditional farm unit (house, barn, garden) in the center of the village could be documented and consolidated and in two senses, where new stables should also be built within the settlement area (or on the outskirts of the village), existing stables may be expanded, if possible as well.

Instead of building a planned bypass road in the hamlet of Cons4, a barn was moved up 7 feet from the main road.  The street could then remain a lifeline as the children’s playground, the pets’ playground, and even be idyllic for the few automobiles that use it as well.  Architecturally, the location of the new barn emphasizes and strengthens the characteristic stepping of the street structure.

The analysis also showed that old and small stables are primarily suitable for breeding and keeping small livestock, and that the topographical conditions favor the advancement of goat keeping as well.  A corresponding project, however, required more than just the design of new stables, an alpine dairy, and shepherd’s accommodation for the work of an architect.  As an architect, I was involved right from the start: from the actual reason for keeping goats, to working on the rehabilitation of CAE disease5, to marketing.  The entire endeavor had a lasting impact on the architectural implementation in the sense of holistic planning.

Dealing with Forms and Material

Vrin has a tradition, its tradition, and as a local you are right in the middle and involved.  This cannot be proved or disproved; for Vriners it is a simple reality.  The real tradition, however, must not be the unreflective copying of superficial forms and motifs.  Rather, the essential tradition of Vrin is found on a structural level and could be described as an “attitude”.  This “attitude” results in the casual handling of forms and materials, an urgent but at the same time misleading assumption in the age of arbitrariness that tradition is the feeling of a liberating continuity and not a rigidity in a morbid still state.  The result is what ultimately “makes” a certain place.  A tradition understood in this way does not tolerate forced thematization.  All visions and creations require reflection; and objectivity and reality are required.  This sounds obvious, but it isn’t.

Wood as Everyday Life Familiarity

A new concern in the village is the creation of a “laying out” space for the deceased.  To this day, the dead in Vrin are typically laid out in the living room; in the middle of the most beautiful room in the home.  In almost all other surrounding villages, however, mortuaries have been built around the churches in recent years for this “laying out” to take place.  This fact may have influenced a demand in Vrin for their own mortuary, but it must be questioned whether this main reason will suffice.  Organized talks are now underway to encourage the population to deal with the topic.  The aim is not to avoid having such a space for “laying out” the deceased, but the consequences of such an abrupt change must be made aware.  Traditionally, the architectural solution is always an expression of an attitude, however, there is an interaction and back and forth.  In the tangible case of the place of laying out, this means the attitude towards death has changed.  Our attitude towards life, which is fixed on this world, suppresses dying and death, and from the anonymity of the urban centers, this lifestyle and understanding is penetrating into the mountain valleys.  The ritual in the event of a death is limited to a single occasion: a short abdication ceremony in the church or in another corresponding place of silence and reflection.  In Vrin this is different to this day; you know each other, you mourn, you sympathize, and not only at the funeral.

Our goal is to be able to say goodbye to our loved ones who have died without fear, because death is part of life.  But can this be achieved in a specific case with a building?  We believe it can.  Not with a visionary, artificial or sacred mood, but with an ordinary space that conveys the familiarity of everyday life.  The place should not address mourning, what is needed is a space that conveys comfort and hope.  An everyday space for the living and not primarily for the dead.  And by “everyday” we Vriners mean, in this case, the intimacy of a warm room with a view through the window of the hustle and bustle in the village.  The material for the mortuary is given, as a link to the stone church: “wood”.

The Building System is not Subject to Stagnation

Wood is used almost everywhere in Vrin.  So the focus is not on a fundamental discussion about the choice of material, it’s about rediscovering the basic properties of wood and the resulting use.  For us, wood is not a trend, but a banal tradition, a natural necessity.

When using it, however, it is important not to fixate on a specific construction system; the art of building uses precisely this opportunity.  In the case of traditional Strickbau6, for example, it is of specific interest to determine what is still possible with this construction method.  It has been shown that simply declaring a construction system dead is tricky because it is not the construction system that is subject to stagnation, but its use.  With the Duvin Schoolhouse, we have found a new form of expression by using new technical means for traditional Strickbau.  We had rediscovered the qualities of such a construction with the stables project where the required insulation value is achieved simply by the selected thickness of the wood.  Multi-layer constructions are eliminated and the raw construction gives the building its face. The physical properties of the wood are particularly important when building stables.

Of course, the possible use of wood is very diverse. The real fascination of the material lies in the fact that it harmonizes with the place and purpose: coarse/fine, heavy/light, soft/hard.

In the case of the Schoolhouse in Duvin, the existing buildings with their powerful charisma clearly determined the expression of the school.  In such a place, a furniture-like wooden building would be just as out of place as, for example, a Strickbau house on Paradeplatz in Zürich.  For Duvin, the use of sawn timber was a given.

During the construction of the multi-purpose hall in Vrin, wood is used as the lashing strap of the truss system.  It is not our primary intention to create mood, it is primarily about the expert use of the material to convey its physicality and explore its properties.

The Reality and the Image

It is of interest to us to show how the construction is made.  The first thing to consider is the balance between construction and cladding.  The construction is the actual reality, and therefore the expression must go beyond the purely pictorial.  The starting point for the development of the elements for the construction of the stables was the old picture of stacking logs.  This type of construction is usually clad with boards, except for the corner joints.  The interplay of construction and cladding is the area of tension par excellence, which makes the so-called “self-evident” obvious.  With the new elements, the visualization of the construction should simply be a reminder or “information”, but never an end in itself or a stylistic device.  The place does not want a sensational building, every coherent place is in itself a sensation.  Power and fascination come from the simple harmony of form and craftsmanship.  Without this inner connection, wood threatens to degenerate into a banal mood carrier and as such, the path of using wood is like walking a tightrope.

1 Caminada, Gion.  Archithese 5. 1995.  Zürich: Verlag Arthur Niggli AG, 1995.  p. 52-54. Translation from German by Kevin Barden.

2 Val Lumnezia is a valley region and municipality in the Swiss canton of Graubünden.  The name means “Valley of Light.”

3 Romansh is an official language of Switzerland and one the descendent languages of the spoken Latin language.

4 Cons is a small hamlet further up the valley from Vrin.

5 Caprine arthritis encephalitis (CAE) is a viral disease of goats found worldwide.

6 Strickbau is a traditional wood construction technique using mass wood; literally translated to “knitting construction”.


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