naturally narrative

Wood Perspectives: Woods, Tree, Timber, House – exhibition Rubner House, Kiens

The Rubner Company operates throughout Europe in the areas of timber building, timber construction systems and building products, down to complete timber houses. The Rubner Center is situated in Kiens in the middle of South Tyrol’s Pustertal, between an approach road and the railway line. The company headquarters there are made up of the holding buildings, several production sheds, a warehouse area, a park with model houses, a research centre, and a large administration building. Despite being located on a busy traffic artery the company premises were not really noticeable and did not directly invite people to visit. The different architectural idioms of the buildings made it difficult to grasp the company site as whole; there was a lack of clarity, legibility and orientation.

The company management had been looking a suitable partner for a considerable length of time; finally through the specialist journal “zuschnitt”, which we design, and the exhibition “Bauen mit Holz” in Vienna they became aware of our studio. They then commissioned us to make a study of the situation and to provide proposals for improving the communication of the location. The encounter between different communicative, visual, architectural and spatial aspects and two different cultures and languages, Italian and German, presented a particular challenge. To respond to these questions in a professional way, we entered into a working partnership with the Zurich-based Italian architect and architecture theorist Alberto Alessi. In a first master plan we jointly developed strategic approaches for scenography, space and communication. We addressed the situation critically, determined central main elements such as landmarks, boundaries and approaches, and defined the public space and the parking area situation. The possibility of a pylon as a viewing platform, a pergola along the river flanking the park containing the model houses, and communicative zones within the buildings were also examined. We then defined three main aspects of the Rubner Center: looking, building, house.

The elements of a corporate communication that remains effective the longest are generally the names. Therefore we wanted to give the site itself as well as the important buildings and places names that were contemporary and that related to each other. Together with the business and marketing management from Rubner and with my freelance partners, architect Alberto Alessi and the cultural theorist and German studies expert Roland Jörg, we developed a dozen names. Here particular attention was given to ensuring that the names can be understood in several languages or can be easily transferred into German, Italian and English.

Reinhard Gassner

For the signage on the site I envisaged a method that not only gave directions but also allowed visual sequential narratives to develop in the movement of the viewers. The optical illusion images known as triscenorama pictures suggested an interesting approach – depending on the angle they are viewed from (from either side or frontally) they produce three different pictures. In the eighteenth century such depictions were used to present concepts that were impossible to grasp such as the Trinity. I first noticed this special kind of three-dimensional pictures in New Delhi, where even today Hindu gods are depicted in this manner and the pictures are sold at street corners. For the Rubner commission it seemed helpful to use this system as a basis and to reinterpret it for the existing situation. In addition there were already silos on the Rubner site that were clad with vertical timber slats, which almost seemed to suggest this basic concept. The material timber made important demands on the design. It seemed obvious that wood should be used as a medium for conveying information. The qualities of the material were to be made visible by corners and edges. The first attempts were based on encasing the silos with the sequence of words “Holz – Legno – Wood”, which would be revealed by the slowly turning slat construction. The idea of the three pictures is universal and is suitable for narrative sequences of images as well as for signs and information. For the exhibition we developed this idea further and worked with pictogram series, for instance two hands extended in a handshake, or a tree that is transformed into a house. The metamorphosis always takes place through movement, either of the viewers or of the medium that carries the image.

Andrea Gassner

In further meetings the idea of making a permanent exhibition on the reception level of the administration building was discussed and refined. Together with Alberto Alessi we developed as curators and designers an exhibition on an area of 400 square meters, that was given the title “Holzperspektiven” (Wood Perspectives). It tells about the forests, trees, timber and building, makes the physical and haptic qualities of timber tangible and visible and shows its importance for the culture of building, both in earlier times and today, regionally and internationally. The exhibition is a sensual narrative about the forest as a source of raw material and offers different perspectives on the use of the material. It is about the perceptible passion for wood in the Rubner business, which was to be made understandable for visitors also.

Three views create the relationship to (outdoor) space: the view of the forest on the mountain slope to the north, the view towards the east of the park with the display of model houses and the planned pergola and pylon, and the direct view into the adjacent production building. Watching the prefabrication of timber elements and following this in real time is an impressive experience. To allow this an opening had to made in the one meter thick wall, an idea which the management implemented only with some reservations. However, this turned out to be a key factor, which Stefan Rubner today describes as the “best place” in the presentation. Practically at the middle of the exhibition space there is a meeting room with full height glass fronts. On this we placed curved typographical lines in the form of an oversized wood grain. This consists of 135 names of different kinds of European trees from A to Z written with thousands of adhesive letters; the most important kinds of wood in South Tyrol are emphasized by the use of the color green.

As space-defining elements were needed in the generously sized foyer that contains the staircase and light well, Alberto Alessi designed an exhibition architecture using stacked boards and sections as a flexible system for vertical and horizontal structures. At the same time we used this structure for wall and podium elements, for intermediate layers and furnishing. The wooden elements stacked crossways on top of each other, which are made of spruce stained an anthracite color, are also an ideal
medium for the texts about the exhibits. The laser engraved texts in German and English expose the light colored core of the wood and are therefore easily legible. Walls and structures allow views inside and across the space, creating a light and yet concentrated atmosphere. More than 10 cubic meters of wood were needed for the exhibition building – an amount that is replenished in South Tyrol in just 3 minutes. This message is also found in the exhibition as an important argument for using timber as a building material. Alongside visual presentations and catchy statements, tactile understandability plays a particularly important role in the educational concept behind the exhibition. For example a 200 year old disc of larch wood as a time axis for the history of the development of the Rubner business and of building with timber. With wooden pegs and white thread the facts the facts arranged chronologically on the wall are linked with the relevant year rings, from the Congress of Vienna to the smart phone.
The exhibition is open not just to specialists but to all interested persons. The company management has repeatedly told us just how valuable for contact with various target groups – from customers and architects to school groups and to interested tourists – this accessible, understandable and enjoyable line of argument actually is. Alberto Alessi drew our attention to the thoughts of the Italian man of letters, Italo Calvino, which as a whole are wonderfully suited to the qualities of wood and the characteristics that an exhibition like this should show. The reference here is to the much acclaimed “Proposals for the Next Millennium” which Calvino developed in 1985 – they contain the key terms, lightness, quickness, precision, visibility, diversity and consistency.

Reinhard Gassner