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Conceived as a wooden lighthouse for the Far North, the 17-storey Barents Secretariat Tower in Norway will house a cultural centre, library, theatre and energy-efficient offices for the Secretariat.
Conceived as a wooden lighthouse for the Far North, the 17-storey Barents Secretariat Tower in Norway will house a cultural centre, library, theatre and energy-efficient offices for the Secretariat.

Architecture in 2013: Gimme shelter – plus security, fitness, warmth and exuberance Add to ...


Civic bows

In 2013, the world will be exposed to the most expressive theatrical civic architecture of all time. Vancouver architect Bing Thom will be refining his competition-award-winning design for the $350-million Xiqu Center project, the Chinese folklore-opera house to open by 2016 in Hong Kong’s new West Kowloon Cultural District. Thom’s flamboyant scheme, with a front facade parted like a massive curtain, occupies a gateway site to a district planned to accommodate 16 cultural venues.

In a telephone interview this week, Thom told me that the Xiqu Centre is designed to honour the ancient practices of the South Chinese troubadours who once travelled from village to village to perform in temporary structures made of bamboo. “We’re back to the traditional values about what a building is for, and how a building can serve society rather than how society can serve a building.”

To that end, the change rooms will be configured to accommodate large trunks containing elaborate headdresses and costumes owned by the travelling actors, and doorknobs may be rethought to allow the heavily ornamented to glide easily through the space. The Xiqu Centre places a commercial mall underground and connected to a subway, so that operagoers arrive into an elevated courtyard where they can immediately see a theatre-training school, two tea houses and a large and small theatre. And, although the exact material is yet to be decided by Thom, the Centre will be defined by an exterior skin of shifting vertical fins that doubles as a projection screen and a means to allow air to flow naturally into the complex.

Such theatrical flamboyance in architecture is hardly limited to Asia. In Scandinavia, an international, anonymous competition has attracted 544 entries and generated expressive proposals for the Helsinki Central Library. The six finalists include a building defined by a canted wooden pavilion with a soaring, sheltering roof; another echoes Thom’s epic curtain entrance. The winner will be announced in June. The shortlisted six designs can be viewed at competition.keskustakirjasto.fi/stage-2-of-the-competition.


Warmth without the warming

It’s time to believe all over again in wood-timber structures and their time-honoured integrity. People warm immediately to wood. But there’s also an environmental argument to be made for it. Concrete requires extreme heat for its manufacture, resulting in massive carbon emissions. Wood structures do not.

The new Laurentian School of Architecture in Sudbury, designed by Levitt Goodman Architects, is a template of innovative, daring design. The library wing (walls, floors and roof) is constructed of cross-laminated timber, or CLT, an engineered wood product made by gluing and pressing together successive layers of spruce, pine or fir two-by-fours or two-by-sixes to form large, solid blocks or sheets that can be precision-trimmed to specific purposes. The School will stand as the first significant use of cross-laminated timber in a public building in Ontario. Within an existing wooden train shed on campus, students will experiment with the newest wood products, including CLT, and apply their design skills to the timber mills of the North.

“CLT is to the 21st century what log construction was to the 19th century (and before). There is great potential, architecturally, to refine an aesthetic based on CLT construction that I find really exciting,” says design lead Janna Levitt. “The material can be exposed or not. There are acoustical benefits to CLT, as wood absorbs sound. And because it’s wood, it does not behave like a thermal bridge.” A recent fire-rating test for laminated wood also shows its strong resistance to fire; many people in the building industry are calling it the new concrete.

In some brave hot spots of design, tall structures made almost entirely of wood are being conceived. Reiulf Ramstad Arkitekter is the Oslo-based firm responsible for the design of a wooden tower for the Barents Secretariat House in Kirkenes, Norway, on the fringes of the Arctic Circle.

Vancouver’s Michael Green, lead designer on North Vancouver City Hall’s expansion, was troubled enough by lax attitudes to the environment, and a lack of building innovation, to argue strongly for alternatives to concrete-and-steel structures. His design for a tall wood tower has generated considerable interest from developers – and organizers of the TED talks. In the coming weeks, he says, the world’s tallest all-wood building may be announced for a site in British Columbia.

Across the Pacific, on Melbourne’s Victoria Harbour, a tower in wood is already being built. Ten storeys high, Forté, a residential building, is being constructed from cross-laminated timber. When completed, it will produce 1,400 fewer tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions than a comparable concrete-and-steel structure, the equivalent of removing 345 cars from the roads.

That’s enough discussion. Now, to the barricades.


For more on great design ideas from global cities, follow Lisa Rochon’s blog, chasinghome.org

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