Francis Kéré, materiality and place

 

In 2022, Francis Kéré was awarded architecture’s highest international accolade, the Pritzker Prize. Kéré’s many projects show us the power of materiality rooted in place, which is something that we emphasise through the use of local materials in our architecture and design work.

Francis Kere RISE Design Studio

Against the odds

Kéré was born in a remote village in Burkina Faso, with no electricity, running water or a local school. He left his family at age seven to study at a city school, where he later trained as a carpenter. After receiving a scholarship for an apprenticeship in Germany, he went on to study architecture in Berlin. Despite being far from home, one of his first projects was to design a school for the village he grew up in, in collaboration with members of the community and using local materials. For this, he was awarded the Aga Khan Award in 2004 and the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture in 2009.

Innovative use of local materials

The Burkina Faso school project included the use of clay-earth bricks and suspended, corrugated metal roofs, to encourage stack ventilation for students learning in a hot, arid climate. By placing the overhanging metal roofs like this – rather than in the common way that makes houses hot inside – cool air is drawn in through the building’s windows and hot air is then released through holes in the ceiling. The innovative use of local materials and adaptation of traditional building techniques, combined with insight and involvement from the community, have been central to Kéré’s renowned approach.

Impact and investment

As awareness of his work grew, Kéré received widespread recognition for his experimentation with different materials to create cool and comfortable buildings in the hot African climate. He has also managed to raise funds for several projects focused on improving schools and other educational buildings for Africa’s young people, often involving buildings’ users in its construction, as he did in his home village.

Continuing to experiment with natural alternatives to air conditioning, one of his most recent projects – a technology campus in Kenya – uses wind towers shaped like termite mounds. In another project – a secondary school in Burkina Faso – he used local, laterite stone as the main building material. By orienting the building east to west, the amount of direct solar radiation on the walls was reduced, and a sharply protruding metal roof (like that used in the school in his home village) creates a large amount of shade.

Other projects in Africa have used a modular approach, with local people employed in the construction of modules, using local materials such as clay, laterite, cement bricks, gum wood and loam. Once again, large walls and impressive overhanging roofs remove the need for air conditioning in most buildings – a vital outcome in the changing climate and in communities without electricity for air conditioning, or the means with which to pay for powering cooling systems.

Inspiration

As the first black architect to win the Pritzker Prize in its 43-year history, Kéré acknowledges that he hopes to inspire young people in Africa to realise that paths like the one he has taken are open to them too. He continues to draw inspiration from local environments and there is a sense that his most impressive works may be yet to come.

Spotlight on Ricardo Bofill as we set up our new studio in Barcelona

 

Later this year, we will be opening a RISE Design Studio in Barcelona. We are excited about this, not least because we take a lot of inspiration from Spanish architecture in our work. Last month, we were very sad to hear the news that renowned Catalonian architect, Ricardo Bofill, had passed away at the age of 82. Bofill’s wide range of impressive buildings have influenced our projects and those of many others. He leaves a lasting legacy for us all.

RISE Design Studio Ricardo Bofill

Early influences and approaches

After an education in Spain and Switzerland, Bofill and a group of friends created ‘Ricardo Bofill Taller de Arquitectura’ in 1963 in the centre of Barcelona. From the outset, he worked in a multi-disciplinary environment, collaborating not only with engineers and other architects, but also artists and writers. This approach later developed into the holistic urban planning/design method that we are more familiar with today. His early projects were seen as exemplars of critical regionalism, with several viewed as a political reaction against the Francoist dictatorship in Spain at the time and a ‘shunning’ of architectural modernism.

In the 1970s, Bofill relocated to France, where his work echoed French traditions of classical architecture. His work in France culminated with the design of the new Antigone district in Montpellier, which combined large-scale industrialisation in precast concrete with classical forms. Described by Bofill himself as modern classicism, his projects like this led to his being referred to as one of the most significant postmodern architects in Europe.

Modular geometry

One of the best-known projects delivered by Bofill and his firm is Walden 7, a modular block of 450 apartments built on the outskirts of Barcelona in 1975. Located on the site of a former cement factory, the modules of the 14-storey building are linked by footbridges and arranged around courtyards. The intention of this design was that the building serves the evolving needs of its residents. On the same site, Bofill built his family home and office, within the original cement factory (see the image above). His stylish and innovative renovation of the factory included a large, central meeting room and exhibition space (the Cathedral), with 10-metre high ceilings and features of the original factory intact in the surrounding décor.

A similarly innovative and impressive project is the ‘monumental’ apartment block Les Espaces d’Abraxas in eastern Paris. Featuring prefabricated stone, cement facades and reference to baroque architecture, one building includes a semi-circular structure that encloses an amphitheatre (that was used as a filming location in The Hunger Games).

From concrete to other materials

Bofill increasingly moved from working with concrete to glass and steel, while still featuring classical elements like columns in his projects. Notable projects from the 1980s include the extension of Barcelona airport before the 1992 Olympics and the National Theatre of Catalonia. His designs gradually lost the classical aspects yet retained his love of a highly formal sense of geometry such as in the Mohammed VI Polytechnic University in Morocco.

A lasting legacy

Over his lifetime, Bofill’s portfolio spanned a wide range of settings, from public buildings to transport infrastructure and urban design. Although Bofill has passed away, his firm in Barcelona continues under the co-leadership of his two sons and we will continue to take inspiration from his work while we establish our new studio in the city.

Interview with Charlie Warde

Sean Ronnie Hill, Director of RISE Design Studio, recently interviewed Charlie Warde, a London born artist, who is now based in Marseille. His wide-ranging practise celebrates and critiques the themes behind post war architecture, in particular social housing. A number of his works can be found in the permanent collection of the V&A and 2 Willow Road.

Sean interview RISE Design Studio Charlie Warde

Sean: Why don’t we start with geography, why Marseille?

Charlie: It all stemmed from the project that Mike Davies and I put together for Manifesta Biennale, last year, so that was… what was last year? 2020! As a roaming European Biennale, it was Marseille’s turn to host Manifesta 13. Mike and I put forward a proposal for a large scale project that involved a student exchange between the Beaux-Arts here in Marseille and City and Guilds of London Art School and a big exhibition celebrating architectural and engineering achievements between the Brits and the French… a kind of “f*** you” to Brexit.

Sean: Absolutely.

Charlie: We were all set to go with that and then Covid kicked in. Mike had had some previous health issues and had to shield, so we had to sadly forget about his input in the project. I piggybacked onto a residency in the Beaux-Arts in Marseille and created a body of work which was well received; it all happened from that really. And then with Covid-19, we got stuck out here and Brexit kept us exiled here.

Sean: Yeah, very much for the better.

Charlie: Yes, exactly. But architecturally there’s plenty to keep me here too. There is the Unité d’habitation, the Cité Radieuse, which is something of an anchor point, I suppose.

Sean: So your equivalent to Trellick?

Charlie: Yes, it’s incroyable! Also, Marseille is a true Arrival City, it’s a port city – a gateway to North African French colonies like Algeria. Consequently you have this flow of people settling slab, dab in the centre of the city. You’ll find some of the poorest housing in Europe, in the first and second arrondissements, just off the Vieux-Port.

Sean: Which is quite like the Industrial model, because when the Industrial Revolution happened it was in the city centre.

Charlie: Exactly that, there are definite similarities in that way, one being that the landlords of these properties are private. They own a lot of the city centre which they rent out at cheap rents, which they fail to upkeep. There is a real issue of neglect, a lot of their properties are extremely dangerous, and there have been tragic incidents… in 2018, two buildings on Rue d’Aubagne collapsed, killing eight. There are buildings in the centre of Marseille with cracks through which you can see daylight. In structural walls! There are buckled door frames, that have shifted because of structural creep. So now in Marseille the Marie (Mayor’s office) is emptying a lot of these properties because they are so dangerous; they are pulling them down. There are gaps everywhere.

Sean: Are they relocating the inhabitants elsewhere?

Charlie: To hotels mostly! There are banlieues on the outskirts of the town which are full. I must say Sean I’m not an authority on this, which is partly born out of my lack of French, so any research that I need to do, such as going through city archives, is out of the question at the moment.

Sean: Sure, I mean you are a new arrival there, but it is interesting the parallel there because Ladbroke Grove was very similar with private housing.

Charlie: Yes, Peter Rachman, the landlord who squeezed a lot of the West Indian community out of what little money they had. Indeed it is similar, but what’s really interesting is Marseille has, as a result, you have this incredible mix of cultures, of classes, of creeds. It’s this crazy, chaotic melting pot, and there are town planners from all over that view Marseille as the antidote to gentrification. If you’ve got this density, this mix, it diffuses a lot of the differences. You’re not creating ghettos like they have done in Paris over the years. Everyone’s in it together – it’s a community. I’m not saying it’s an easy alliance, but it works in many ways.

Sean: Yes, yes absolutely, I mean that’s very much the essence and the beauty of these amazing cities. London did it for many years with many different communities living together and it very much benefited the city.

Charlie: Absolutely.

Sean: That leads into another interesting parallel where you’re taking about Unité d’habitation and Trellick: concrete. It was the material “in vogue” at the time…. but there’s a lot of interesting things you got from Trellick.

Charlie: For sure. They are both landmarks. Both are cited as prominent examples of a particular era aren’t they? Trellick being Brutalism, the Unité earlier – 1953 (Trellick was completed in 1972). “The Corbusier” as they call it here, is one of the high points of post war Modernism. And yes, both sculptural essays in the use of concrete. However, I would say the construction of Trellick Tower is superior to Corbusier’s building.

Sean: Do you think it was down to local craftsmanship or down to the timeline?

Charlie: Both – I think it’s a lot of things. I think it is the timeline. I think that structural engineers, architects and concrete technicians learnt very quickly how to improve mixtures and the issues of using certain aggregates. There were advancements in construction skills – for example vibration systems to compact concrete when it was poured into shuttering so that there were less cavities. Trellick Tower did have an advantage in that regard. Also, Goldfinger was particularly adept at large scale construction projects. He finished on time, never went over budget and was absolutely rigid in the way he oversaw a build. He was a very controlling man, he was a bully – larger than life, like his buildings. He was able to force situations into completion.

Sean: I suppose in an industry like that especially back then, maybe that was necessary.

Charlie: Yeah, 1972! From my knowledge of the project, they didn’t encounter too many problems whereas Neave Brown’s Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate was rife with issues, some born out of the complexity of the site (it was built along a curved railway line). There was a major flood because of a burst water main. There were also walk outs and strikes. It ran over time and over budget – it coincided with the demise of a lot of these large-scale estates.

Sean: What attracted you initially to Goldfinger’s work ?

Charlie: My first job in London was dismantling televisions on a shop in Golborne Road in 1996, and that was the first time I encountered Trellick Tower up close and personally, and it terrified me. I had already seen it driving in and out of London on the Westway – as you ride the flyover you meet its gaze – but being on Golborne Road, being under its shadow was something that made such an impression on me. Then I became aware of the legend and mythology of the building — the bad times in the 70s and 80s, the stories of drugs, muggings and rapes, the pirate radio station aerials on the roof. That all changed in 1984 with the resident’s association being formed. In 1987 the council finally installed a concierge to control the flow in and out of the building. It was the “Tower of Terror” mythology that initially pulled me in and then, when I was doing my masters, I began to research it and I began to understand why it was built, who it was built for and more about that period of architecture.

Sean: So Brutalism became your topic of choice then ?

Charlie: Yes, yes it did, after knowing very little about it became an endless source of fascination, and I began to look at other Goldfinger buildings. I had a residency at 2 Willow Road back in 2013 which gave me the opportunity to make a series of radio shows with James Torrance for Resonance FM on Ernö Goldfinger – Homes Of Tomorrow. We interviewed some great people – Neave Brown, James Dunnett (who has written widely on Goldfinger) and Mike Davies among them. It opened up this whole world of post war architecture, from which my practice has grown.

Sean: And in terms of your practice, we’re kind of jumping around a bit now but, it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on your upbringing

Charlie: My upbringing was peculiar, I grew up in a stately home in Kent, Squerryes Court, built in the 1680s. It’s a massive doll’s house – red brick, symmetrical, large windows, light filled; very beautiful. My family couldn’t afford to live there without opening it to the public so it became this lovely little museum and wedding venue around which we navigated our lives. We lived in a small part of the building and the rest was shut off and opened to the public. So I grew up in a beautiful environment that was interesting from an architectural perspective AND a fine art perspective as there was a small collection of paintings, furniture and porcelain. I grew up with an appreciation for these things.

Sean: Yeah, because you were surrounded by incredible architecture.

Charlie: So yeah, my upbringing was completely devoid of Brutalism, right ? It couldn’t have been more different and perhaps that’s the thing that drove me in a different direction. And I was into street culture as a kid – hip hop, breaking, graffiti; the Electro albums, Subway Art and Beat Street made a big impression on me. That led me into the more interesting parts of the city…

Sean: So, with a History of Art background, was Art always there ?

Charlie: It was always there. I think my subsequent degree in Art History was a natural progression given my family surroundings, and the people I met from from an academic and research background, so I fell into the art history. I guess that History of Art is interesting from a Fine Art perspective because one becomes an arbiter of style and quality – the stuff you learn about tends to hold up over time and is held as exemplars. If you have a background in Art History, I think it fine tunes you as an artist, raises your standards.

Sean: You have all the bits of a puzzle subconsciously.

Charlie: Certainly! And one is conscious of getting things absolutely right too. If you’ve researched art academically, you become very aware of the way your own art might be perceived.

Sean: Seems like a massive advantage to have this knowledge of the industry.

Charlie: Yup, but also a disadvantage… I’m perhaps too much of a perfectionist! I’d like to talk about some of the pieces you’ve been working on over the years, and the reasoning behind your medium of choice and why 3D and why is that inspiring?

Charlie: Well this all came out of two things really. Firstly, My Masters from City and Guild’s of London Art School from which I graduated in 2012, during which I concentrated on the contextual and conceptual aspect of my practice. I developed the idea of trying to BUILD a painting out of paint rather than simply paint a picture of a building. In 2012 London was full of “luxury apartment” building sites, CGI pasted all over hoardings around large scale construction projects – perfectly rendered lifestyle images of models in slick interiors, you know the sort of thing. Building a painting in 3D seemed like a more honest rendition of architecture than some slick two-dimensional trickery.

Secondly, during my pre-MA life as a portrait painter, I learnt how to grind pigments, make oil paint, cook up and thicken mediums, stretch, size and gesso canvases etc. I had a profound understanding of artist materials and found I could apply that to pushing acrylic paint, mediums and pigments into reproducing concrete ingredients and finishes.

Sean: Do you use anything like a substrate? So you start up with a thin piece and just layer up. No reinforcement?

Charlie: It’s pure paint – Plastic Painting. So yeah, that’s kinda how it happened, but concrete is interesting to me because it is bound up with so much narrative potential. That whole idea of the Sense Of Place, of Psychogeography and telling a building’s story. Concrete is full of energy – the stuff that made it, that it’s soaked up over the years. I think a damaged, decrepit piece of concrete from a neglected building is so revealing. So that sort of narrative is the stuff I’m interested in.

Sean: There’s something beautiful in a weathered building, but often with the architecture that we share an interest in, it would be interesting to see it when it was first built – before the weathering and pollution.

Charlie: Absolutely. Like Thamesmead, the way Kubrick depicts it in A Clockwork Orange, just after it was completed – it’s pristine, the stuff of Science Fiction. Not like that anymore…

Sean: So one of the most important elements of architecture that architects are considering now is sustainability. What is your attitude towards concrete as a material and how it can play a part ?

Charlie: Its a worry isn’t it, Sean? They say that if concrete was a country, it would have the worlds second largest carbon footprint. When one considers the amount of infrastructure that is being built in Africa, China and South America, it is just extraordinary. We are running out of construction grade sand!

I think the really interesting thing is the idea of transformation — architectural transformation. Finding the potential in something that already exists, even if it’s damaged. So you have Anne Lacaton and Jean-Phillipe Vassal who won the 2021 Pritzker Prize and their practice is all about transformation. Look at their project in Bordeaux – the Quartier du Grande Parc. They took an existing housing scheme and bettered it. They just altered the scheme, they didn’t tear it down. Mei Architects did an amazing project in Rotterdam — Fenix One. They took a large concrete warehouse and built a series of flats on top of it. I hope there’s a shift into realising that these are the ways that architects can solve existing problems. This is what my next exhibition in London is all about, PLAYTIME. I have asked 10 architects, artists, art critics, curators and a fashion designer to reimagine and transform the entire exhibition each week. Mike Davies is one of the Players, Gianni Botsford another; two brilliant architects that will rebuild the exhibition. Everything will be available to view in real time, 24/7 on the website, because we have HD CCTV cameras positioned around the gallery. The title, PLAYTIME, is based on Jacques Tati’s film, the ultimate cinematic critique of Modernism. As always, It’s all about the architecture, Sean!

RISE Design Studio Charlie Warde

Warde’s latest UK exhibition, PLAYTIME, opens at Cable Depot on 12th November. Details can be found here.

New build in the countryside – dream or possibility?

 

As the world tries to move on from the Covid pandemic, there is anecdotal evidence that we are increasingly seeking life outside the city. Building a new home in the countryside and becoming a rural dweller may seem like a impossible dream but it is becoming an increasing reality for some. One reason is that the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) allows new, isolated homes to built in rural areas, if they are of exceptionally high quality of design. We explain the rules below.

RISE Design Studio - new build in the countryside

The right house in the right place

Current NPPF policy recognises that new housing can be very homogenous – the ‘cookie cutter’ developments that have been all too common across the country. This has led to a push to improve the design quality of new housing, particularly in terms of environment considerations.

In the new NPPF, paragraph 79 encourages local authorities not to approve new developments on unbuilt land in the countryside. However, there are some important exceptions to this rule. These include where a house is designed to exceptionally high quality, helping to “raise standards of design more generally in rural areas”. In addition, a house would have to “significantly enhance its immediate setting, and be sensitive to the defining characteristics of the local area”.

No single route to success

The requirement for “truly outstanding or innovative” design means that there is no ‘right’ type of house that would receive planning permission. Instead, there is the need to focus on the individuality of a project and be aware that it is likely to be a long and intensive process.

It is clear that the sustainable design elements of the new build are key. Using natural, local materials can help the property to ‘take root’ in its local context. Equally important is how the property would positively impact the site, complementing and enhancing the existing landscape. Planning committees are more likely to approve houses which ‘belong’ in a landscape and use sustainable building technologies that are unique to the site.

Chances of success?

It is worth noting that the number of applications and the corresponding success rates are both quite low – a study found only 66 approvals between 2012 and 2018 (this was a 58% success rate, compared to an 88% success rate across all residential applications). Each case tends to have it own unique circumstances and the rules may be applied differently in different local authority areas. Engaging the local authority and any local communities or stakeholders early on in the project is very important. This will help to ensure that those making the final decisions about the build are confident in the quality, suitability and acceptability of the design and location.

We considered a lot of these aspects in the design of our Clogher Forest Village project.

Sketchbook Chronicles N.005

 

RISE Design Studio Birch Clay Refugio

– RISE on Houzz: how to work remotely like a pro.
– Springtime means colour! – Architecture interiors and garments.
– Prefab Architecture: do-it-yourself kits and modular buildings.
– 3D-Prints: Foster + Partners printed steel truss.
– Social Distancing in style.

You can read the full version of the Sketchbook Chronicles issue N.005 here.

Looking back at 2019

 

Happy New Year to all our clients and followers. We finished some really exciting projects in 2019, two of which were shared widely online due to coverage from some of the architecture and design world’s top websites. Douglas House, an extension of a terraced house in Kensal Rise in London, transformed the property into a contemporary and light living space. The second, the ‘Brexit Bunker’, nicknamed by its owner in Kensal Rise, added a garden office and ‘place of serenity’.

Douglas House renovation Kensal Rise London Brexit bunker garden studio Kensal Rise London

Douglas fir-lined extension

“180 metre square project features an oriel window which sits in dialogue with a third-floor reading pod”

Dressed in Danish timber, the family rooms have taken over the ground floor to extend into the garden. The ground floor also houses a carefully designed utility room and built-in larders that extend from the floor and hide in the walls of the living room. On the first floor, the children’s rooms are decorated with wooden details and other natural materials, and the family bathroom is full of natural light. The loft conversion is home to the master bedroom, which has a second half-floor that extends upwards to a reading space from which you can look out over the local area.

The house also features a range of environmental technologies, including high levels of insulation, airtightness, roof-mounted solar panels, a mechanical ventilation heat recovery system, rainwater harvesting, and smart thermostats.

Douglas House renovation Kensal Rise London 2 Douglas House renovation Kensal Rise London 3

We were delighted that this project was featured by:

Architect’s Journal: ‘RISE Design Studio completes Douglas fir-lined extension to London house
ArchDaily: ‘Douglas House/RISE Design Studio
Dezeen: ‘RISE Design Studio adds Douglas fir-lined reading nooks to London house
Architecture Today: ‘RISE Design Studio has maximised the spatial and environmental potential of a semi-detached house in London

An oasis of calm in a busy city

“A calming retreat from the hectic outside world”

The ‘Brexit bunker’ was added to a small garden – although novel, it does not interfere with the property’s existing architecture and the raw aesthetic ties the entire garden together. The walls are built with reclaimed bricks and the interior is clad with birch plywood, giving the space a warm glow when the light reflects from the skylight in the roof. Spanish steps lead towards the roof light and a relaxing space to contemplate life without seeing any visual cues that the structure is in the city rather than the countryside.

Brexit bunker garden studio Kensal Rise London 2 Brexit bunker garden studio Kensal Rise London 3

This project was featured by:

Architizer: ‘The Brexit Bunker, London
designboom: ‘The Brexit Bunker is an oasis of calm in north-west London
Archilovers: ‘Brexit Bunker

You can also read more on our Projects page.

Rammed earth walls: natural and sustainable living

 

‘Rammed earth’ is a technique for constructing foundations, floors and walls from natural raw materials such as earth, chalk, lime or gravel. With the lowest enviromental impact of all building techniques currently used in the commercial construction industry, rammed earth is receiving growing attention and becoming more and more popular with architects, builders and clients alike. In this short post, we tell you a little more about the technique.

Rammed earth walls RISE Design Studio architect west london

Mixing it up

Rammed earth walls are made by ‘ramming’ a mixture of materials into place between flat, temporary panels called ‘formwork’. The panels are normally made of wood or plywood and they are clamped around the earth to make sure it doesn’t bulge when compressed. The materials rammed into the formwork generally include gravel, sand, silt and a small amount of clay.  An additive like lime, cement of asphalt is often added to make it extra strong.

The mixture is compressed inside the formwork by a mechanical ram and compacted to approximately 50% of its original height. The compression takes place in stages, usually in depths of 10cm to 25cm, and this is repeated until the top of the formwork is reached. This is the part of the process that results in the beautiful layers sometimes seen in rammed earth walls.

After the wall has been completed, the formwork is removed and a surface texture can be applied, e.g. by wire brushing or carving. The wall is normally too hard to work on after about one hour. As the walls dry and harden (ideally in warm weather), the compression strength of the rammed earth increases to a maximum of 4.3MPa (620 psi). This is less than concrete but sufficiently strong for domestic buildings.

Environmentally-friendly

Cured rammed earth has a high thermal mass. This means that it absorbs heat during the day and releases it at night, which reduces heating and cooling costs. Environmental impacts are also kept low if the amount of processing of rammed earth materials is kept to a minimum (i.e. artificial additives) and material is sourced locally where possible. Most of the energy used in the construction of rammed earth is in quarrying the raw material and transporting it to the site.

Healthy home

The composition of rammed earth allows it to absorb and release humidity from the inside of a building. This improves air quality, particularly for people who suffer from asthma. Rammed earth is also inorganic, which means that it won’t decay and does not support the growth of mould.

Back to our roots

More than 30% of the world’s population uses earth as a building material, hence this technique is not new. Properly constructed rammed earth can also last for thousands of years, demonstrated by the many ancient structures built using this technique which are still standing around the world.

It has received growing attention in recent years as the construction industry and its customers have a growing sense of the need for environmentally friendly and sustainable building practices. Not only does the technique offer opportunities for carbon-neutral building projects, the technique can be employed in a wide range of climatic conditions and for developing housing that would otherwise be constrained due to expensive construction techniques.

It is a technique that we have been exploring at RISE Design Studio, particularly in our drive to use local, sustainably-sourced building materials.

History of plywood and its present day use

 

We have recently completed several projects that have used plywood as a feature material. Plywood is made by gluing together thin sheets of wood (‘veneers’), with the grain of each sheet running in a different direction. The result is a material that is stronger and more flexible than solid wood. The history of plywood has been described as “a history of the modern world” – plywood started to be used on an industrial scale in the 1850s. In this post, we take a quick journey through that history and reflect on the uses of plywood in architecture and design today.

Plywood kitchen design self build london

The art of moulded plywood

In the mid to late 1800s, plywood was most commonly used in moulded form and was used mainly in furniture design. The ‘Belter Chair’ was most famous at this time, as the technique of moulding plywood to make this high-backed chair increased manufacturing speeds and reduced production costs.

The Finnish architect, Alvar Aalto, was also one of the pioneers in curved plywood furniture, enabling large-scale manufacture of chairs and other furniture designs that were exported across the world in the early 1900s.

American designers Charles and Ray Eames also experimented with moulded plywood during the Second World War, developing a lightweight, stackable plywood leg splint for the armed forces. The Eames Chair, also in moulded plywood, was one of the most influential chairs of the mid to late 20th century and continues to be adapted and imitated by designers around the world.

Ray Eames - stackable plywood leg splint for the armed forces

Plywood transportation

Cars, trains, boats and planes are perhaps not the first things to spring to mind when thinking about plywood. However, during the 1800s, designers and engineers explored ways to deal with increasingly crowded streets. An elevated railway, made entirely as a moulded plywood tube was suggested in 1867 in New York, and in the early 1900s, a German company extolled the virtues of using moulded and flat plywood for the body of their affordable family cars.

Perhaps more familiar would be the use of moulded plywood in canoes. From 1917, the US firm Haskell manufactured moulded plywood canoes and sold them in large numbers across the world. The boats were very light and very strong.

The firm went on to design aeroplanes using plywood and this was perhaps the most technologically significant phase of the material’s history. Between 1910 and 1945, its strength and lightness allows innovative new planes that ‘revolutionised the nature of flight’. Moulded plywood shells (the ‘monocoque’) were strong enough to be self-supporting (they didn’t need any internal structure) and became standard in future aeroplane design.

Plywood at home

In the 1930s, plywood was perfectly suited in the construction of prefabricated houses for people on low incomes during the Great Depression. With the invention of synthetic glues at the same time, it was possible for plywood manufacturers to produce waterproof plywood for external use.

Plywood in the digital age

Today, plywood is one of the most common materials of the digital age. It is possible for designers to share plywood projects via digital cutting files, or videos and other images posted online. It continues to be widely used in residential and commercial architecture projects, and its ‘clean’ finish is appreciated by a growing market interested in using sustainable materials that are sourced responsibly.