Building in Wood

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Title: Buildings in Wood: The History and Traditions of Architecture’s Oldest Building Material

Author: Will Pryce

Photographer/s: Pryce, Will.

ISBN: 0-8478-2746-1

Size: 243mm by 316mm, 320p.

Publisher: Thames & Hudson

Publisher www:

Published in: 2005


Buildings in Wood: The History and Traditions of Architecture’s Oldest Building Material is one of the most comprehensive and exquisite books on timber design that it is possible to read. It explains not only the architectural forms that different societies have developed throughout history, but it also unpacks the reasons for these differences in simple, easy-to-comprehend language.

Will Pryce undertakes a monumental task in this book, but his measured approach never leaves the reader lost. The book is large and many pages long and contains a huge amount of information, but every page sees one or more large, extremely high quality photographs which, on more than one occasion, are stunningly beautiful. Buildings in Wood goes all out in showcasing the greatest wooden buildings in the world, and the combination of the brilliant photography and the confident prose of Pryce is the core of why this book is such a rewarding read.

Buildings in Wood travels all through the world to examine the culture of timber architecture from each continent in turn (save Antarctica). Looking through East Asia, North Europe (mainly Scandinavia), West Europe, East Europe, America, South-East Asia and Australia, the book covers every style of building in wood. There is a vast quantity of different structure shown throughout these sections, which comprise the majority of the book, of which a short selection will be mentioned here.

The section on East Asia focuses mainly on Japan and China, showing their long traditions of timber construction and, in particular, the enormous structures that they have built that continue to stand today. Temples and castles dominate this section, like the monastery at Todai-ji (34), the largest timber structure ever built. Himeji Castle (48) is another enormous structure of wood from the seventeenth century. From China, a great deal of attention is paid to the Temple of Heaven (58) and the Forbidden City (62), two locations that, while covering an enormous area of space, are built almost entirely of wood.

Scandinavia is an area of heavy forests and, as such, the artisans of those northern countries have had much experience with timber constructions. A major focus in this section is on the stave church forms (76), one of the most iconic wooden structures from that area. While the stave church is an ancient design, it has informed some of modern churches of Finland and Sweden (90) which are examined here, showing how the tradition of building with wood has developed over time.

Western Europe has a very different history with wood as a construction material, as the advent of masonry construction overtook timber in a way that did not penetrate Scandinavia until much later. However, many buildings remain that still showcase that building tradition; England in particular plays a large role in this section, with barns (106) and country manors (110) showing their particular style of timber construction. There are also examples from mainland Europe, stretching from France through Holland, Germany and Switzerland, creating a wide variety of structure styles.

The section on Eastern Europe has a heavy religious theme, with most of the inclusions being imposing churches and cathedrals built entirely from massive logs. The most impressive of all of these is the Cathedral of the Transfiguration (158), an enormous structure entirely built from whole logs and with beautiful white shingles cladding the onion-shaped domes that immediately mark the building as a Russian construction.

The structures in the section on America have a strong influence from Western Europe, as might be expected[1]. The vast forests that colonists found throughout the north-east supported a predominantly timber architecture industry until the Industrial Age and, due to the different cultures moving to the continent, there is a wide variety of different styles found here. Log construction and timber framing both see use in the examples here, but a focus here that was not present in the previous sections is on a recognisable timber industry, showing the vast numbers of timber houses built in the late 19th and early 20th century. Some of the houses, particularly those commissioned by business magnates from the 19th century, are beautiful examples of timber craftsmanship, including the Hotel del Coronado (202) and the Gamble House (206).

Returning to the east, the section on South-East Asia is a welcome break from the Western-based architecture that is the focus of the middle portion. Shrines and monasteries from Thailand, Burma and Indonesia illuminate the vastly different requirements for buildings from these tropical environments with their raised forms, heavily ventilated interiors and highly decorated roofs. The Burmese Monastery (220), Directional Temples from Bali (234) and Sulawesi House of Origin (242) show how, more so than in the European sections, there are vast differences between the cultures here and, thusly, between their building traditions.

The final area looked at by Pryce is Australia, which is similar to America in its post-colonial architecture traditions. The major focus is on the Queenslander (250), one of the few innovative forms to have been developed in Australia and one that is uniquely suited to the climatic conditions of the far north. There is also an examination of the endemic timbers of Australia and the gradual turn of architects and builders to these unfamiliar yet eminently suited materials.

The final section of Buildings in Wood does not examine an area but instead looks at contemporary trends in the timber industry, looking at composite timbers and building techniques that show how wood has remained a significant part of the building industries despite the move towards newer materials of concrete and steel. It notes technologies such as LVL and CLT, and also the increasing concerns as to the sustainability of the construction industries.

Buildings in Wood is an exceptionally beautiful and expertly written text. While a summing-up of the entire history of timber construction would take far too many pages to be contained in a single book, Pryce does an incredible job of providing insight into many different cultures and explaining the reasons behind the differing traditions that are present in the historical buildings that remain and the continual evolution of the timber architectural industries. If you are interested in timber at all, read this book.

[1] It should be noted that the structures are all from post-colonial America.

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