The dramatic technological, environmental, political, and economic changes that occurred during the 20th century irrevocably changed the way in which wood is used in all types of building. Three major themes can be discerned: improved technology and accelerating scientific research have resulted in novel uses for wood as well as in structural and decorative substitutes for wood; improved transportation, rising demand, and freer trade have created large, new worldwide markets for all types of timber and wood fiber; and, despite constantly shifting styles, steady change in construction technology has reduced wood’s relevance to architecture.
The immense investment of energy, time, and wealth in scientific research by governments, businesses, and universities throughout the 20th century bore fruit in practically every field of endeavor, and wood, despite its seemingly elemental nature, was not neglected. The fundamental innovations of the 20th century were to devise new ways to break wood down into its boards, strips, strands, fibers, and even molecules and to concoct new and better ways to reattach these components. Another breakthrough, although of questionable environmental merit, was the gradual development of improved techniques for planting, growing, and harvesting trees. These innovations had the net result of increasing both the usefulness and the value of wood in society. They also permitted, for the first time, many physical weaknesses of wood to be significantly ameliorated.
Except for scarce “old growth” timber, which can be up to 10 feet in diameter and over 100 feet in length, trees produce lumber that is not very long, very straight, or very stable. Premodern carpentry accommodated the slender, flexible, environmentally sensitive nature of wood by devising intricate, laborintensive methods of combining small pieces of wood to create architectural surfaces and structural frames. Carpenters in the 20th century, by contrast, were able to use many new wood products that are, in theory, infinitely wide, flat, long, stiff, uniform, and stable. The most famous example of this is plywood, actually a trade name for a Douglas fir product that was first exhibited at the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition of 1905. Plywood is best known because, by the middle of the 20th century, it was being used for everything from furniture designed by Frank Lloyd Wright to P.T. boats, but it is just one of many different types of composite wood panels made up of layers of wood veneer glued together. Because the layers of veneer are laid at cross angles to one another, plywood warps, shrinks, and cracks very little. Although it is sold today primarily in panels four feet wide by eight feet long, it can theoretically be manufactured to any dimension and in virtually any thickness. Many types of veneer panel were being manufactured in limited quantities during the 19th century, but the growing usefulness of composite wood panels in the 20th century depended primarily on the increasing strength, durability, and water resistance of the adhesives.
Composite panels could also be made from straw, wood, sugarcane, or practically any other kind of vegetable fiber. Such products as Masonite, Homasote, Celotex, Insulite, and Presdwood were developed and produced throughout the 20th century and offered builders some of the same advantages as plywood, namely, perfect uniformity of size and strength, extreme economy, and tremendous structural efficiency. Because these products had limited insulating quality—and also because they were cheap, easy to produce, and manufactured from agricultural or lumber waste products—they were in extremely high demand during World War II. As the Masonite Man boasted in a wartime advertisement:
Many a U.S. fighting man, from the north pole to the tropics, lives and works in a Quonset Hut, lined entirely with Masonite Presdwood. The entire lining for a Hut is shipped easily in one compact crate…painted and ready to install. These Masonite Presdwood walls resist both the frigid blasts of the Arctic and the heat, humidity and insects of the equator.
Another product that achieved popularity and importance in the 20th century was the “glue-lam” timber. The first recorded use of glued laminated arches was in Basel, Switzerland, in 1893. In 1901 the first patent was awarded to Otto Hetzer of Weimar, Germany. Thereafter, glued laminated arches were known in Europe as the Hetzer construction method. In the United States, the first glued laminated timbers were manufactured by Max C. Hanisch, Sr., a German immigrant and the founder of the Unit Structures Corporation of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, in 1934. The principle of the gluelaminated beam was probably first employed by Bronze Age fletchers who manufactured bows of extreme flexibility and power by gluing thin strips of animal horn together. In the case of the glue-lam timber, however, scientists in the 20th century developed efficient ways to laminate small, dry boards together to create, in theory, infinitely long, deep timbers of uniform cross section and stable composition. Gluelam timbers could also be bent into any shape, increasing the variety of architectural effects that could be achieved.
In the past several decades, numerous variations on these two themes have been developed in an effort to reduce costs, preserve timber, increase efficiency, and raise profits. Oriented strand board, Para-lam timbers, pre-primed plywood siding, and trussjoists, to list just four among hundreds of brand-new products, utilize super-strong new waterproof adhesives and small, thin, dry boards or even mill scraps. The advantage of all this innovation has been constantly increasing speed of construction, vastly increased efficiency in the use of diminishing timber resources, ever lighter-weight structures, and lower building costs. The drawback to all these new products is greater fire hazard, slimmer margins of engineering safety, shorter life spans, and a reliance on an increasing number of synthetic glues and preservative chemicals.
Throughout the 20th century, but particularly after World War II, many nations and regions began to export formerly untapped timber resources, and many developing nations established strong new wood-manufacturing industries. Increased trade in the 20th century had two major effects: the largest Western economies were benefited from the increased availability of foreign wood species, were formerly tiny, insular economies were being affected by international trends in construction, timber harvesting, and manufacturing.
The international timber trade is at least as old as recorded history. In biblical times the ceiling of Solomon’s temple was reputedly framed of cedar beams imported from Lebanon. During the Middle Ages, most of the highest-quality oak boards used in England for doors and furniture were brought by ship from the Baltic. One result of growing trade in the 20th century, however, was the availability of larger and comparatively less expensive quantities of foreign timber than ever before. The species might be exotic, such as teak from Myanmar or mahogany from Brazil, valued by shipbuilders, cabinetmakers, and other specialty secondary industries, or they might simply be inexpensive softwood for framing, such as the huge quantities of fir, spruce, hemlock, and pine pouring onto the world market from Canada, Russia, and other Baltic countries. Naturally, this increased trade was largely a result of rising demand. Annual world demand for all types of wood is expected to rise in 2010 to approximately 2.7 billion cubic meters, according to the United Nations. This is approximately 15 percent higher than the world’s production capacity in 1997.
Increased international trade also increased pressure in many markets to standardize or to adopt new techniques. In Japan, for example, where carpentry is a ferociously defended traditional craft, pressures were mounting to incorporate Westernstyle framing because of its low cost and its efficient earthquake resistance. This was contrary both to popular opinion in Japan, where traditionally framed structures are believed to flex and bend with earth tremors, and to carpenters’ preferred methods of work. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of Western-style framing was demonstrated during the Kobe earthquake of 1995. Following the terrible devastation, engineers in Japan noted that modern Americanstyle plywood boxes had proven quite durable, whereas many traditionally framed postwar buildings had performed poorly. American-style platform framing, however, relies on standardized kiln-dried lumber and plywood, which American lumber companies are eager to begin exporting to Japan in larger quantities. Japanese carpenters and lumber companies, on the other hand, would much prefer to import select American logs and process the lumber themselves, thereby preserving jobs and, they believe, increasing quality. The serious consideration in Japan of the adoption of Western-style framing, Western lumber dimensions, and offshore labor exemplifies the power of international trends to change even the most entrenched traditional local uses of wood in construction. Such shifts have occurred throughout the world.
Probably the most interesting—and misleading—force that influenced wood’s use in the 20th century was the fluctuating popularity of many different fads, trends, styles, and practitioners of architecture. These influences are difficult to disentangle from simultaneous technological, economic, and political changes and indeed were usually precipitated by the more powerful shifts of the world at large.
One of the most notable shifts of the early 20th century was a worldwide move away from romantic, historicizing styles of building to the International Style. In the United States, this meant that Richardsonian Romanesque, Neoclassical, Craftsman, Edwardian, Art Nouveau, and a host of other styles of building were slowly overcome by the machinery of the building itself. This shift was not merely stylistic. As Henry-Russell Hitchcock noted as early as 1928, “Indeed a client, while he may ask for a Tudor or a Georgian or even a Maya design, is unlikely to permit any serious sacrifice of le comfort moderne to the exigencies of a past style” (Hitchcock, 1928).
In retrospect, it was inevitable that as the building became filled with more and more lighting, heating, cooling, communication, and transportation equipment, not to mention a strong new steel skeleton, it would divide into at least three parts: guts, bones, and skin. The inconsistency of having fresh, young, vigorous guts and bones sealed in a leathery old skin from a previous millennium slowly became more objectionable until advocates of the International Style proposed a solution: the entire building ought to be a new, upto-date machine for living.
Naturally, this shift had a powerful influence on how wood was used in architecture. Where the Greene brothers, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and Victor Horta glorified the skill of the craftsman, the physical beauty of architectural materials, and the expense and complexity of fabricating architecture, the International Style celebrated the economy, simplicity, and directness of mass-produced materials and components. Metals, glass, concrete, plastics, and rubber became the preferred palette of leading architects from the 1930s on. Wood was acceptable if it was served up in flat, straight, square, uniform, repetitive chunks—in other words, if it imitated the stripped-down, mass-produced aesthetic of the other parts of the machine. Frank Lloyd Wright expressed the disgust that many modern architects felt toward traditional wooden embellishments very clearly when he wrote:
Wood, therefore, has more human outrage done upon it than man has ever done, even upon himself…. In his search for novelty, wood in his hands has been joined and glued, braced and screwed, boxed and nailed, turned and tortured, scroll sawed, beaded, fluted, suitably furbelowed and flounced at the carpenter’s party—enough to please even him. By the aid of “modern” machines the carpenter-artist got it into Eastlake composites of trim and furniture, into Usonian jigger porches and corner-towers eventuating into candle snuffer domes or what would you have?; got it all over Queen Anne houses outside and inside—the triumph of his industrial ingenuity—until carpentry and millwork became synonymous with butchery and botchwork. (Wright, 1928)
According to Wright, the machine itself was not to blame—it could easily produce the smooth, rectangular, geometrically pure pieces that he and many other modernists desired and put to use in Wright’s Prairie-style houses and many other buildings. Naturally, therefore, the scientific and technological advances in the use of wood during the early 20th century appealed to modern architects, and they made excellent use of new materials and techniques.
What is not obvious, perhaps even to the architects and critics of the Modern movement themselves, is that some of the bestknown and most contentious commentators of the 20th century were merely running a few steps ahead of the pack, ten moist fingers to the wind. Far more influential—and ultimately irresistible in its power—was the tide of economics and technology that swept everything architectural in its wake. Rising labor costs, decreasing quality of timber resources, sudden enormous wartime demands, the growth and monopolization of wood industries, and, most important, the growing dominance of mechanical systems have been far more influential than any style or architect despite what some might say about Alvar Aalto’s plywood chairs or Tadao Ando’s rustic wall treatments. According to Kenneth Frampton, two-thirds of the total budget of any large building built in the 1990s is expended on mechanical and electrical provisions of one kind or another, from airconditioning to piped information.
This observation has many implications. First, combined with the fact that most large buildings today are framed in steel, it means that high-status architecture utilizes very little wood and consequently has practically no influence on the lumber industry. Custom-furnishings manufacturers provide the entire (small) package of fittings, furnishings, trim, and moldings. Wherever possible in their design, they will substitute a cheaper synthetic material, such as plastic laminate or metal. Where wood is absolutely required, it will usually be a thin veneer over a particleboard backing. Second, because most “vernacular” structures—everything from tract homes to taco stands—are designed with absolute economy and relatively short life expectancies, lumber manufacturers are in cutthroat competition to produce the cheapest possible structural components—and these vernacular wood-framed buildings, designed by builders and engineers, make up nearly 86 percent of all American structures and a growing percentage of new structures worldwide. The innovations of the lumber industry, consequently, will rarely reflect the stylistic or philosophical attitudes of architects, and because architects have little reason to be interested in the lumber industry anyway, only contractors, engineers, and environmentalists will be left to argue over how scarce timber resources ought to be used, protected, or augmented. In short, wood has moved out of the purview of the most influential architects.
The main difficulty in an analysis of any topic as broad as the 20th-century use of wood is to distinguish causes from effects. Scientists and engineers in the 20th century created marvelous new uses for wood and surprising new ways to reconfigure wood. Large new supplies of timber came onto the world market from all corners of the world; and, most noticeably to those of us who are architects and historians of architecture, there were extremely novel and exciting new applications for wood devised in the 20th century. No one who has visited one of Alvar Aalto’s buildings can fail to be impressed by his sensitive handling of a material as mundane as birch plywood, and no one who has stood in a modern church sanctuary vaulted by glue-lam beams can fail to be impressed by their warmth, clarity, and dramatic effect. However, wood is rarely a major component in high-status architecture. Wood’s flexibility, warmth, beauty, and dynamic vitality are used by leading architects only as special effects. Instead of being revered as the essential, expensive, natural material that it once was, it has become another cheap mass-produced commodity sold by the truckload to weekend do-it-yourselfers and tract home builders. Scientific technology, which facilitated so many exciting changes in wood’s use throughout the 20th century, eventually brought forth other materials and systems. Those new systems, namely, electrical, plumbing, insulating, heating, communication, and transportation, have assumed prominence in construction projects of all types, and they, far more than any structural or decorative material, will continue to be primary architectural influences throughout the 21st century.
Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.3 (P-Z). Fitzroy Dearborn., 2005.