Regional building styles and construction techniques weave a complex history that reflects the qualities, cultures, and narratives of a particular place. Olson Kundig took this to another level when designing Outpost Basel, an architectural pavilion at the Design Miami/Basel Collectors’ Lounge in Basel, Switzerland. The wood construction legacies of several places came together to create a bespoke structure that embodies the global design culture in which we operate.
The architects hail from Seattle, in the heart of the Pacific Northwest’s timber country. They brought their innovative mastery of materials to Western Europe, where companies like the Austrian goliath Holzindustrie Schweighofer are pushing wood technologies forward in new ways. The two worked together in Romania to construct the pavilion out of a wood-block system that is typically used as formwork for concrete and then discarded afterwards. Instead of using the wood bricks to create forms, the architects decided to give them a rich black hue by charring them with a traditional Japanese wood-burning preservation technique, completing the international mélange that makes the project unique.
In the center of the lounge is a large box made from the wood blocks provided by Schweighofer. The designers liked the raw look of the wood blocks, so they left them unfinished. The system is a series of wooden parts that are doweled together, “like IKEA furniture, avoiding screws,” Olson Kundig principal Tom Kundig told AN. The light walls were quickly and easily constructed to form the interior volume, and a series of openings were inserted by shifting the blocks according to the Fibonacci sequence. Once the walls were erected, they were charred using “Shou Sugi Ban,” an ancient technique that has been used in Japan to protect untreated wood against rot and insects. It was also an important way to fireproof villages before modernity. The process involves charring the wood and then using different oils to achieve different effects, while changing the intensity and exposure of the torch to produce varying levels of charring. At first, Schweighofer—who has been a leader in the wood processing industry for more than four centuries—was skeptical of the unusual idea, but eventually executed it at their Romanian compound, treating the blocks before they were shipped to Basel. They used a torch to apply the burn to the surface, and after two coats of torch, they put a sealing oil on the surface which sets the finish and reduces the risk of the black soot rubbing off (on people’s clothes in Basel). The inside of the space was left raw, so that it maintained the warmth of the wood blocks, while the burnt black exterior relates to the rest of the space in which the pavilion sits.
The entire construction was tested off-site at Schweighofer’s facility in Romania. A full-scale mock-up collapsed, so additional structural components—such as columns and torsional support—were added. Since the project was an interior build-out and not exposed to the elements, it made things a bit easier. In addition to using the industrial wood elements in innovative ways, Olson Kundig incorporated some new, interactive technologies into the final design to make the materials more glamorous. Glymmer, a Seattle-based design studio, created a system of lights derived from the shape of the wood that change based on the movements of visitors inside the pavilion. The designers embedded the subtly colored lights into the gaps in the wood system, while projectors overhead added another layer of interactive light. Large wooden X’s along the perimeter of the lounge area reference Design Miami’s 10th Anniversary.
Bringing this kind of construction technology to Switzerland not only ties the big timber construction of America’s Pacific Northwest with cutting-edge European technology, but the process of charring the wood also references the burned concrete of the famous Bruder Klaus Field Chapel by Swiss Pritzker Prize laureate Peter Zumthor. Both buildings use charring to create a warmth and sensuousness via the marks of the construction process. These tactile interventions at the hand-scale preserve the craft that is often not visible to today’s global magazine audience. The pavilion was used as the VIP Area for the fair, and also hosted activities, including the Design Talks series.