Learning From Trees 01 Interior Marcela Grassi

Learning from Trees


Andrew Barrie Lab

5. Interior design award

Photographed by: 
Marcela Grassi

This project was an invited contribution to the Italian Pavilion at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia. The theme of the Italian Pavilion was Resilient Communities, the exhibits presenting approaches to the climate emergency. Our brief was to create a meeting and display space that both showcased the innovative use of timber, and housed seating, tables, and display plinths. (Covid occupancy restrictions during the Biennale meant that of these functional elements, only a few items of furniture were installed.)

The project had to meet a number of constraints, including being able to be compressed into a minimal volume for shipping. However, there was only a short window for installation, so it needed to be able to be rapidly and accurately assembled in the gallery. Further, the budget was small: NZ$160,000 for design, fabrication, shipping, installation, and eventual relocation.

The result was a slender, lightweight, sustainable structure that points the way to a different kind of timber construction. Learning from Trees draws on New Zealand’s history of building with timber—both our colonial and Pacific architectural traditions. Responding to climate change through low-carbon architecture is an urgent challenge. However, other developed economies are large and very much interlinked. They can take advantage of materials and technologies and skills from across a wide area—a tree can be cut in one country, milled in a second country, and inserted into a building in a third country. By contrast, we are a small nation located far from almost everywhere. Our people may be able to move relatively freely, but not so building materials—we must rely mostly on materials produced locally. Our constraint, then, is that of a modest economy—we must find ways of doing things ourselves, within our small market, and with our available technology. If we want to innovate, one under-explored means is to do so by making difficult things simple rather than always seeking more complexity.

The lattice-like structure recalls both a ball of string and a woven basket. Consistent with the desire to exploit unexplored potential at the lower end of the technological spectrum, the structure’s visual intricacy relies on a cunning diagonal geometry such that the column-beam joints—normally complex and expensive—could be ‘seamless’, employing simple L-brackets. Structural rigidity was provided by a multitude of traditional partial-lap joints, fabricated using custom-made jigs on an ordinary flat-bed milling machine. The elements were milled from 42mm Abodo thermally modified pine. This was chosen primarily for its stability and the accuracy with which it could be milled—as the pavilion relied on very tightly fitting timber-to-timber joints for its structural rigidity, extremely high tolerances were required.

Material was carefully ordered and processed. The range of element lengths meant that through the fabrication process almost nothing entered the waste stream. At the conclusion of the Biennale the structure was disassembled—no glues or irreversible fixings were used—and has been permanently reinstalled at a research institute in the Italian town of Peccioli.