Review: First, the Forests at the Canadian Centre for Architecture
December 24, 2012

First, the Forests
Octagonal Gallery, Canadian Centre for Architecture
Montréal, Canada
Through January 6, 2013
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First, the Forests, a new exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal, begins with a single provocative image: a giant fir log mounted on a flatbed truck. The photograph is taken from a series of Washington state souvenir postcards from 1940 and features three loggers dwarfed by the uncanny mass of their cargo. The photograph evokes awe and terror: awe at the scale of nature and our ability to conquer it, terror of the brutality of destruction. The loggers are smiling, a poignant juxtaposition to the devastation of logging. Curator Dan Handel’s intent for the show is to explore “unexplored relationships between forestry, planning, and design,” and this image, which appears as the lead-in poster, sets the emotional tenor. What we are about to see merits equal parts admiration and caution.

The show takes place in the CCA’s Octagonal Room, a secondary space adjacent to the main exhibition hall designed for smaller exhibitions. Handel is the first recipient of the Centre’s Young Curator’s Program, chosen from a pool of hundreds of applicants, which gives emerging practitioners the opportunity to conduct their research at the institution. Accordingly, the space is modest, challenging curators to strip down their ideas into a compact, digestible format. For his research, Handel spent months in the CCA archives, whittling his broad ambition down to four themes: bureaucratic, scientific, tropical, and economic forestry, each illustrated by a specific historical moment.

Each theme occupies a quadrant of the room with material mounted on the walls and on a stud frame structure that forms an inner ring to the space; the structure nicely references the balloon-frame construction technique used to build homes across America. The archive material is eclectic: photographs, books, postcards, maps, charts, and wood samples, cleverly tied together through the use of plywood frames and stands, populate the exhibition. Four large vinyl reproductions are also mounted on the outer wall serving as each theme’s banner and suggesting an immediate relationship to design.

In Scientific Forestry, for example, which examines Switzerland, Germany, and France during the Enlightenment and the first application of scientific methods to the forests, we are presented with a large bubble diagram in which German landscape designer Willy Lange seeks to describe the associations between tree communities, their physiognomic characteristics, and their organization on site. The diagram is virtuosic in its information design. Crucial to the exhibition is the audio guide, which provides contextual information without cluttering the space with text. Produced by the experimental sound cooperative Audiotopie, it mixes ambient sounds with a narrative that oscillates between keyword proclamations, historical accounts, and first-person stories.

The material that Handel manages to dig up and display here is often as impressive in its obscurity as it is effective in relaying Handel’s message. In particular, the seventeenth-century Venetian administrative records and maps, which comprise Bureaucratic Forestry, are admirable in their representational technique. They show a clear relationship between cartographic design and early attempts at forestry, geared to insure a consistent supply of lumber for shipbuilding, sustaining the strength of an empire.

A few of the maps combine pre-Cartesian attempts at accuracy spattered with sketches of recognizable landmarks – subjective-objective hybrids that informed loggers how to maneuver their supply to Venice. A map dating from the eighteenth century shows abstracted forest sites dissociated from their geographic location used for comparing relative sizes. While this is a common convention for architects today, it would have been rare in that period. The maps and diagrams included in Scientific Forestry show a similar fluency and inventiveness in graphic communication; Karl Kasthofer’s diagrams for cyclic harvest schemes in Swiss forests in 1830 are of particular note.

In Economic and Tropical Forestry, the relationship between forestry and design becomes a bit murkier but still yields a few revelations. A photograph showing the streamlined production of a wood and pulp mill in British Columbia, Canada, immediately evokes the kind of “machine architecture” that early Modernists like Le Corbusier so revered. Indeed, it is in the invention of mechanical and labor systems to transport and process lumber that we can interpret a kind of “design.” Here, the exhibition reveals how capitalist American society in the twentieth-century drove further developments in the lumber industry prompting the systematization of industrial extraction and distribution operations.

In the audio guide of Tropical Forestry, we listen to the story of Dietrich Brandis, tasked by the British government to extract teak from Burma’s vast remote rainforests. Photo documentation of makeshift logging roads under construction by native laborers and the exploratory maps used to track down this precious resource illustrate the complexity of managing such a process – logistical problems, territorial challenges, and social conflicts of the colonial teak trade. The suggestion here is that process too can be considered design.

With each theme, Handel also attempts to include a contemporary project seemingly as a way of reinforcing the legitimacy of his chosen categories, and this is the least convincing part of the show. In Scientific Forestry, we see a never-used master plan by Herzog and de Meuron for the Hannover Expo, which recreates the highly artificial organizational logic of early scientific forestry for the layout of the expo grounds. In Economic Forestry, Handel selects the Weyerhaeuser Headquarters in Tacoma, Washington, designed by SOM in 1971 as a representation of the economic logic of forestry embodied in a modernist building. In both cases, the metaphors feel stretched, and the projects come off more as curiosities than compelling elements of Handel’s arguments.

While Handel goes to great length to display images that impress, highlighting the triumph of human ingenuity, there is also a subdued terror. In displaying how the extraction process was so critically linked to political and economic power, we see how a seemingly benign material was and remains entangled in an array of moral failings: imperial violence, colonial exploitation, the destruction of habitat, and the devastation of nature. So while we laud the advancement of technique, we have to question the moral implications of forestry with all its externalities.

This subdued terror is something Handel is familiar with. He recently co-curated the Israel Pavilion at the Venice Biennale for Architecture, where his show Aircraft Carrier looked at the impact that American developers had on Israel’s architectural landscape since 1973. The year marked the beginning of a long partnership between the America and Israel in the latter’s enduring occupation and territorial conflict, but that fact is only hinted at in the title and toyed with in the gift shop. Otherwise, terror is tacit and self-evident, left to the audience to intuit.

First, the Forests diverges from traditional discussions about aesthetics and form in architecture and instead questions how architecture relates to the world around it. This is nothing new for the CCA, which in the last few years has put on several excellent shows of this nature: Imperfect Health considered how architecture deals with both the abstract and immediate needs of “health,” Actions: What You Can Do with the City revolved around how citizens can co-opt and subvert the city, and Journeys traced the traveling of ideas, objects, and architecture as well as subsequent rearrangements in our environment. With First, the Forests, we can add to that a discussion about how a single material has transformed the world around us.

Editor’s note: Portal 9’s autumn 2013 issue will revolve around the theme, “Forests.” Please refer to our submissions page for more information.

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Each theme - scientific, economic, tropical, and bureaucratic forestry -- occupies a quadrant of the room with material mounted on the walls and on a stud frame structure that forms an inner ring to the space. Photograph courtesy CCA.
A 1940 photograph from a series of Washington state souvenir postcards opens First, the Forests. Images and photographs of the exhibition courtesy CCA.
A 1940 Washington state souvenir postcard.
The archive material in First, the Forests is eclectic: photographs, books, postcards, maps, charts, and wood samples, cleverly tied together through the use of plywood frames and stands, populate the exhibition.
First, the Forests curator Dan Handel.
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