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Nordic Cool


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Plywood Sculptures in the Kennedy Center's Hall of Nations Illustrate the Flexibility in Design with Plywood


Around 3600 BC, Mesopotamian woodworkers faced a quality wood shortage. To compensate, they invented veneers: high quality wood on the exposed surfaces glued to lower quality wood at the core.  

About 2000 years later, the Egyptians developed the two-man lathe to carve thin, vertical, continuous sheets of veneer from lengths of wood. Gluing these pieces of sheets together with their grains crossed was the precursor to modern plywood.


Fast forward a few thousand years and Swedish engineer, architect, inventor and industrialist Immanuel Nobel re-invented the Egyptian lathe using industrial age tools and techniques, creating the modern version of plywood and plywood production. Immanuel was the patriarch of the Nobel family described as ‘the Russian Rockefellers’ who moved to St. Petersburg for two decades. His son Alfred held 350 patents in his lifetime, including the very lucrative patent for his invention of dynamite. Alfred, of course, posthumously created the Nobel Peace Institute in his name.


Plywood – the ubiquitous manufactured wood product is one of the most common uses of wood on the planet today. Because of the Nobel Connection, it has a particularly firm place in Scandinavian design, including the iconic furniture that burst on the world scene in the middle to-late 1900s as well as more current Nordic uses of the flexible material.



When the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., agreed to play host earlier this year to a Nordic cultural festival called ‘Nordic Cool’, two of the exhibits converged around the tale told above: a retrospective of the life and work of Alfred Nobel and a mesmerizing exhibit of the wonders of plywood writ large.

The plywood exhibit – large-scale plywood sculptures in the Center’s Hall of Nations created by Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta – was in the words of the Kennedy Center intended to celebrate “one of the most used products in Scandinavian design, from moulded to tensioned, from furniture to houses. Plywood experimentation from the 1920s and onwards, built a base for further development of low cost plywood products intended for a broader public. It is a material most representative for the development of social democracy in the Nordic region.”


Snøhetta’s acclaimed projects include the National September 11th Memorial Museum Pavilion in New York, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria, Egypt, and the Oslo Opera House. Kennedy Center vice-president Alicia Adams says that Snøhetta and Center staff worked side-by-side for more than a week to turn a prototype into a public exhibit: “They had an initial mockup,” she says, “but the installation really took shape only once they started to work on the site and to experiment.”


“People were intrigued by the fact that the wood could be so flexible,” Adams says. “That just the tension of the ropes suspending, stretching the plywood would create such unique shapes and movement.”


The Snøhetta sculptures, installed in one of the main entrances to the Center, were part of the month-long event that provided exposure to Nordic music, lectures, films, cuisine, art and culture attended by nearly 200,000 visitors.


Adams noted the imagination could ‘run wild’ while looking at this installation: “For some, it looked like a roll of film. For others, the effect was like a roll of paper. For others, like some sort of flying object.” The Snøhetta crew and the Center staff had to be aware of the large number of people that circulate through the Hall of Nations every day, the height and width restrictions, entry and exit points, and the way the plywood sheets responded to the different points of tension, suspended and anchored by ropes.


“The suggestion of using plywood came from the Snøhetta office,” says Adams. “They wanted to demonstrate its properties.” The Kennedy Center, concerned about visitor safety, insisted on fireproof certification.

The Snøhetta team complied and had all of the plywood fireproofed before it was shipped from Norway. “At the very end, we are very happy with our plywood baby,” said Adams.   IW