Timber City

Review

of an Exhibition

by Devora Liss

Published on February 12, 2017

  • Description:

    First, I should come clean and say that I was an employee of NBM between 2010-12. Second, I am a certified carpentress, and thus become over-excited in the presence of wood.

    This exhibition comprises of four large panels, each on a different topic:
    1) Why build with timber? (it’s efficient and saves energy);
    2) Why manufacture timber? (it maximizes resources and creates little waste);
    3) Why harvest timber? (it’s renewable and has a lower environmental impact than other materials);
    4) Why live in timber buildings? (they’re durable and make people happy);

    In addition, there is a less prominent panel on high-tech timber, a number of building models, infographics, and Q&A panels in the hallway outside.

    The exhibition’s big idea is that timber is the ideal building material. The subtext is stop being a tree hugger – trees can be harvested responsibly, actually making the world a better place.

    As avid readers may anticipate, I must complain about the lack of things to touch. An exhibition about timber, printed entirely on wood panels and as beautiful as it may be, does nothing for my itchy fingers. I kept reminding myself that not all wood is carpentry, and the tactile has (almost) nothing to do with the concepts at hand (pun intended). Let’s move on.

    The graphics for this show (and hierarchy of info) were simply wonderful. As noted, each panel presented a question, with several sub-headings as answers. Medium ideas were noted in brightly colored circles, alongside illustrations and graphs that helped convey visual and quantitative information. Yet the setting felt a little off – the white, arched rooms of a gargantuan brick building.

    The infographics were well-done and impressive. At one end, a world map, color-coded for forest type (boreal, temperate, and tropical), with highlights of timber buildings across the globe. At the other end, concentric, chronological circles, much like the rings of a tree – a timeline of innovations and events related to processing, shipping, and innovation of timber products. I’d written about some of these in my final project in carpentry training.

    Along the walls, somewhat blocked by the larger panels, were examples of industrial and processed lumber, each with explanations about the manufacturing process, size, application, etc. We’d entered through the farther door and had encountered a few unfamiliar terms. Perhaps things would have made more sense if we’d entered through the closer door and read these panels first. (I woodwork in a language that is not English).

    A number of models were on display – I was especially impressed by the Common Ground High School and the Brownstein-Selkowitz Carousel Pavilion, both in Connecticut. They were perfect examples of how the built environment can feel warm and inviting. In comparison, even the homiest of homes suddenly felt angled, stark, and alienating.

    Most exhibitions are on subjects I know very little about. I entered Timber City as a tree-hugger and nature-lover. It took me about 1/3 of the way through to realize what this exhibit was actually telling me – I then lowered my guard, doubled back, and re-read what I’d already gone through. I wonder whether any front-end evaluation was conducted, to ease visitors into the idea that cutting down trees can actually be good for the planet. Once I knew what I was being told, I greatly enjoyed this exhibition. While I live in a tree-poor country (thank you, Ottoman Empire) and have no hopes of every living in a wood house, I enjoyed learning about timber as a construction material on a global scale.

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