Plywood: Material of the Modern World
July 15 – November 12, 2017
Victoria & Albert Museum
Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL
Apart from the materials displayed within the exhibition galleries, “Plywood: Material of the Modern World” also features an installation designed by Patkau Architects, made as a permanent ice-skating shelters in Winnipeg, Canada in 2011. The Vancouver-based architect’s design has now been specially re-built in London by Isokon Plus for their exhibition in the V&A outdoor patio.
Around the 1760s, furniture workshops in Britain began to use plywood techniques for specialist tasks, such as cut-out decorative patterns known as fretwork.
By the 1830s, the introduction of mechanised saws caused a huge drop in the cost of veneers. Designers and engineers started to investigate plywood as one of the ‘new’ materials of the industrial age. Plywood became particularly prized for its capacity to be moulded into strong, curved forms, in part because this offered a cheaper alternative to cast metal. Patents were issued for a range of plywood products and designs.
Strong, light and fast: Unlike other industrial materials such as steel or aluminium, plywood did not require large-scale factory production and could be easily moulded in small workshops using simple tools. This meant it was often used for experimental forms and shapes. These could then be quickly passed on to other workshops and tested in the designs of various kinds of objects.
From the 1910s to 1945, plywood’s strength and lightness allowed for the construction of radical new planes that revolutionised the nature of flight.
Building the modern world: It was not until the 1930s that architects and builders first began to experiment with it as a building material. Plywood’s attraction was its low cost, its uniformity and the fact that it was factory-produced in standard sizes. The invention of synthetic glues in the mid 1930s also meant that plywood manufacturers could produce new waterproof plywoods, ideal for exterior use.
Material of the future: From the post-war furniture of Charles and Ray Eames to 1950s skateboards and 1960s DIY sailing dinghies, plywood became a popular and versatile material for everyday design. Plywood’s standardised production and unique material properties were exploited on a much greater scale than ever before.
Plywood in the digital age: Underneath this rise in popularity, plywood’s manufacture poses ongoing and serious environmental problems. Although certification schemes attempt to encourage the use of responsibly-sourced plywood, the industry is a major contributor to deforestation, particularly through highly-damaging illegal logging.
The rise of plywood in contemporary design has seen the development of new products that can be moulded in ways never previously possible. In addition, large-scale engineered woods, operating on similar principles to plywood, have increasingly been adopted by architects looking for more sustainable methods of construction.
PLYWOOD ICE-SKATING SHELTERS by PATKAU ARCHITECTS
These ice-skating shelters were designed for a frozen river that runs through the city of Winnipeg, Canada. Winter there can last for up to six months, with temperatures dropping as low as minus 40°C. This makes it the coldest city of its size outside Siberia. Winnipeg sits at the junction of two rivers, the Red and the Assiniboine.
The skating shelters were the 2011 winners of an annual competition in which architects are invited to design a warming hut that will sit at the junction of the rivers. These huts allow residents to keep using the skating trails along the rivers during Winnipeg’s long winter months.
Each shelter can accommodate three or four people, and they are intended to be grouped in a small ‘village’ or ‘herd’. Their shape suggests a group of stout, monolithic creatures protecting themselves from the elements, while relationships between the shelters shift according to the movement of the sun, the time of day and the weather.
Each one is built of flexible plywood, specially constructed with a thin central layer that allows it to bend along one axis around a minimal timber frame. In the wind their plywood skin comes alive, moving and shuddering in the breeze.
The architects wanted the shelters to be as lightweight as possible, intending to create a voluminous structure using a minimal amount of material. They chose plywood because of its reliability, strength, light weight and the ease with which it can be worked. The process of designing the shelters began with a series of small models, made first with paper and card, then with sheets of veneer. Each of these materials posed different challenges in the degree that it could easily be curved.
In the final plywood design each shelter was made from a series of overlapping panels, each panel cut on a CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machine to a different pattern. The panels are joined with rivets. The shelters are extremely light and were anchored to the river by long screws that attached their timber bases into the ice.