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Another bite of the cherry

by Katie Treggiden

For Milan’s Wallpaper* Handmade exhibition in April 2015, Kolman Boye used their Rotunda Serotina both to explore the structural power of repetition and rehabilitate an unfashionable material. Katie Treggiden caught up with them at the Rotunda’s second outing, London trade show Architect@Work, and talked bricks, bones and doing it for the kids.

Founders of Kolman Boye Architects, Erik Kolman Janouch and Victor Boye Julebäk, see repetition everywhere they go. – When you walk through London, just like Copenhagen, it’s a brick city, says Julebäk. Everything starts with a brick that has been taken out of the ground, moulded by hand, laid by hand – you have this huge city of millions of people and it’s all built with the same material. 

It’s not just bricks – they are fascinated by anything in replication. – If you take one of something, it’s nothing to most people, says Janouch. If you take 10, it’s still nothing. If you repeat something 100 times, you’re starting to see some kind of pattern – it’s starting to become something. If you repeat it 1,000 times, then it becomes something completely different and very interesting. In architecture, that’s important. 

The initial brief for the Rotunda Serotina stipulated a ‘candy-store concept piece for serving food’. The final structure is a cylindrical wooden room with 12 walls at 30 degrees to one another, each comprising 11 shelves holding 44 cherry-wood trays that people can take home as souvenirs. The Rotunda has 4,620 component parts, each crafted by UK furniture makers Benchmark and assembled in collaboration with engineering consultants at Arup. 

The vision behind it, however, is entirely Kolman Boye’s. The pair has cited photographs of the repeating typologies found in industrial buildings organised into grids by conceptual artists Hilla and Bernhard “Bernd” Becher and a 1936 image of a clothes store in Copenhagen covered with 1000 overcoats among their inspirations for the Rotunda Serotina – Wallpaper* sent us pictures of traditional candy stores where you have 100 identical drawers in a counter, says Janouch. The whole idea came from childhood memories, this idea of getting a cone full of candy, so we started out with a repeating paper cone, then we turned that into a cherry-veneer cone, and that became a solid cherry tray.

Rotunda Serotina is a celebration of repetition, of working with a limited palette of materials, and of the concept that ‘less is more.’ – We have so many impressions in the world all the time, all these things coming at you at once, so it’s really interesting to work with the complete opposite of that; where you try to take so much away that there are just the bare bones left, Janouch says. There is also the rationale of economy: how can we create 4,620 separate elements from cherry wood in a way that is functional, beautiful and simple to produce? Solving those questions dictates the form.

The four-metre-high rotunda is held together using traditional Japanese joinery without the use of glue. (A small amount of glue is used in the ladder, which provides access to the shelves and a central dispenser, which holds the savoury snacks, sadly not sweets, to be served on those 528 trays. – Building culture today is cheap, so we try to work in a different direction, says Julebäk. We want to work with crafts; we want to work with our hands; we want to work with tactile experiences; we want to have an almost spiritual connection with the things we do. So, we often look back at history to see what’s good, what can be used again, what has been forgotten, what we can do to be as sustainable with technique as we are with materials, energy, technology, economy and culture – and that’s where the Japanese peg joints come in. 

Your material, American hardwood, is inherently sustainable because of how quickly it grows, and using less popular woods like cherry helps to balance supply and demand – in what other ways did sustainability play a role in shaping the concept? 

– VBJ: We thought about what makes things sustainable and we arrived at the conclusion the first premise must be that people like something. If people like something, they take care of it. If they take care of it, it will last for a long time, so we wanted to make something that people would love and take care of. 

You’ve talked about reducing the concept to its ‘bare bones.’ Tell us about the ‘skin, meat and bone’ formula behind the Rotunda? 

 – VBJ: We wanted to create something that would change in a theatrical way, so we started talking about Robert Wilson, a theatre director. He works with this premise of ‘skin, meat and bone,’ so we decided to do the same. The thing that lasts longest, the structure, would be our bones – inspired by the cooling towers in Hilla and Bernhard Becher’s photographs. Next came the meat – we needed a carcass, a skeleton, a space, and we liked the idea of a round gathering space – a rotunda, so that dictated the form of the structure. And then we needed a skin. We wanted people to be able to rip the skin from the carcass, so as people take the trays they are ripping the skin off, and in the end you are left with just the empty carcass. 

You have another, slightly less gruesome, analogy to describe the same thing, don’t you?

– VBJ: Yes, I was thinking about the rhythm in music and how our structure is almost like a musical score. You need that rhythm, that structure, otherwise you don’t have anything to carry the poetry, the lyrics, the melody, the tune... We have the structure of the Rotunda, and then we add trays, we add people, and suddenly you have the different notes, and then it’s almost like a Brian Eno track! 

How have people interacted with it? Has it worked out as you had hoped?

– EKJ: We had almost choreographed how each tray would be removed so they would be taken in a certain order, rather than all the ones at head height going first. Then one night in Milan suddenly lots of children appeared and they were climbing all over the structure like monkeys – it was fantastic. [Engineering consultants] Arup had calculated its structural integrity so it was able to withstand that and they didn’t damage it all, so that was a really nice moment. All our choreography went out of the window, but I always think: if the kids like it, we’re good. 

Does the way it responds to its environment change between Milan and London? It’s quite a different space…

 – VBJ: Yes, there certainly haven’t been any children climbing on it here! It’s really nice in the context of this Victorian building – the iron structures in the interior of the building are made up of many components in a similar way to the Rotunda and the shape of the room echoes the shape of the structure, so it was a nice experience walking into this barrel-shaped room and seeing our barrel-shaped structure standing at one end. 

Victor, you teach at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts School of Architecture, and Erik, you head up a small construction company – why is it important to your architecture practice to have this connection to both academia and to making?

– VBJ: The architect’s role can be so narrow – we want to understand both where things come from, to discuss them in the context of academic work with students, from a social point of view, but also from a technical point of view. If you are going put something into the world for 100 years, it needs to be pretty well informed. 

– EKJ: We also gather a lot of knowledge from following that process to the end because if you drop off a project and give it to someone else to build, you never know what happens, you get no feedback at all.

What was it like working with Benchmark? 

– EKJ: It’s a fantastic workshop, there are so many gifted people there and they’re doing these fantastic things. You could say: ‘Oh could we try this?’, and somebody would off into a corner and half an hour later there it would be. They immediately understood what we were trying to accomplish and we understood what they needed from us, so it was a fruitful process. They built the entire structure in just four weeks.

 – VBJ: They have so much knowledge; that’s the lovely thing about working with good craftsmen. In many fields, the architects would do this through a design consultancy, and that’s what we are trying to move away from. We are not trying to say that we can do what a craftsman does, but if we understand it, we have better communication and we get the best results.

What was cherry wood like to work with? Have you used it before? 

 – EKJ: No, and it has a bad reputation, because it has been so misused in the past – those red varnished things that were everywhere in the 1970s. We tried to do something completely different. 

 – VBJ: Originally we wanted it to be completely untreated, but to make it food-safe, it had to be lightly oiled. We tried a bunch of different oils with pigments – we even tried to pickle it – but in the end it was just treated in such a way that it would retain its natural light pink colour. 

Would you work with it again? Was it an experience worth repeating? 

 – EKJ: Yes, definitely. Every time you start to research something, you become fascinated with the possibilities. It’s the same when you restrict yourself to using one material. Once you start looking at it and not just looking but really seeing – being in the material, living it and breathing it – you suddenly start to recognise the possibilities. That’s really exciting.

“Once you start being in the material, living it and breathing it – you suddenly start to recognise the possibilities. That’s really exciting.”

“We want to work with crafts; we want to work with our hands; we want to work with tactile experience; we want to have an almost spiritual connection with the things we do.”

“How can we create 4,620 separate elements from cherry wood in a way that is functional, beautiful and simple to produce?”

“Suddenly lots of children appeared and they were climbing all over the structure like monkeys – it was fantastic”

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Katie Treggiden

Katie Treggiden is a design writer (creating confessions of a design geek, now [...]