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Transforming Trees Into Skyscrapers - by Rebecca Mead - for the New Yorker - April 18, 2022

In Scandinavia, ecologically minded architects are building towers with pillars of pine and spruce.

Brumunddal, a small municipality on the northeastern shore of Lake Mjøsa, in Norway, has for most of its history had little to recommend it to the passing visitor. There are no picturesque streets with cafés and boutiques, as there are in the ski resort of Lillehammer, some thirty miles to the north. Industrial buildings, mostly for the lumber industry, occupy the area closest to the lake, and the waterfront is cut off by a highway. The town, which has a population of eleven thousand, was until recently best known to Norwegians for a series of attacks on immigrant residents three decades ago, which led to street clashes between anti-racism protesters and supporters of the far right. Since 2019, however, Brumunddal has achieved a more welcome identity: as the site of Mjøstårnet, the tallest all-timber building in the world.

Mjøstårnet—the name means “Tower of Mjøsa”—stands at two hundred and eighty feet and consists of eighteen floors, combining office space, residential units, and a seventy-two-room hotel that has become a destination for visitors curious about the future of sustainable architecture and of novel achievements in structural engineering. It’s the third-tallest tower in Norway, a country whose buildings rarely extend above ten stories. Although Mjøstårnet dominates the Brumunddal skyline, it is a tenth the height of the world’s tallest structure, the Burj Khalifa, in Dubai. Its scale is similar to that of New York’s Flatiron Building, which, when completed in 1902, topped out at just over three hundred feet. (Three years later, it was capped with a penthouse.)

Like the Flatiron Building—one of the earliest steel-frame skyscrapers, which defied public skepticism about the sturdiness of a building that tapers to the extreme angle of about twenty-five degrees—Mjøstårnet is an audacious gesture and a proof of concept. It depends for its strength and stability not on steel and concrete but on giant wooden beams of glulam—short for “glued laminated timber”—an engineered product in which pieces of lumber are bound together with water-resistant adhesives. Glulam is manufactured at industrial scale from the spruce and pine forests that cover about a third of Norway’s landmass, including the slopes around Brumunddal, from which the timber for Mjøstårnet was harvested.

I went to see the building in mid-December, arriving by a train from Oslo that passed through farmland and woodland before reaching the edge of Lake Mjøsa, which is Norway’s biggest. The steely waters lapped a shoreline of charcoal-colored rock, on which traces of the previous weekend’s snow remained. The forested bank opposite, when it emerged from clouds of fog, was dark green against the pallid sky. The journey north from the capital takes about an hour and a half, but I didn’t need a watch to tell me when I had arrived at Brumunddal—the incongruous sight of a tower block rising from the water’s edge was a sufficient signpost. Descending from the train, I wheeled my suitcase for fifteen minutes across town—past the parking lot of the local McDonald’s and across the highway, which was nearly empty. As I walked, Mjøstårnet loomed in the mist, resembling from a distance a box of matches. On the roof, there was an angled wooden canopy that might have been fashioned from a handful of matches taken from the box’s drawer.

The timber for Mjøstårnet was harvested from the forests that blanket about a third of Norway’s landmass.

The tower is flanked by two other all-timber structures: on one side, a low building that houses the municipal swimming pool; on the other, an office building. Some low-rise wooden apartment buildings edge the lake. Mjøstårnet’s sheer façade is clad in panels of orange-brown knotty timber, whose dark vertical lines of wood grain lure the eye upward. By the entrance, an English-language sign attests that a group called the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat has certified the tower’s record-breaking status. Passing through a revolving door, I smelled the enticing scent of pine—though its source, I realized, to my mild disappointment, was a Christmas tree.

The material from which the tower had been built was evident, though, in the airy ground-floor lobby and restaurant, where wooden dining tables and chairs were arrayed on bare wooden floorboards, wooden pendant lampshades dangled on long cords, and large bamboo palms in pots were clustered at the base of a curved wooden staircase that rose to a mezzanine. Large columns supporting the building, as well as angled braces cutting across the restaurant’s walls of windows, were formed from massive glulam blocks, the thickest of which were almost five feet by two feet, like pieces from a monstrous Jenga set. Riding a glass-walled elevator to my room, on the eleventh floor, I noticed that the elevator shaft was built from similar chunky blocks.

I had been assigned a corner room with two huge picture windows. One faced southwest, across the lake, where the view was obscured by fog; the other faced southeast, along the waterfront, offering a painterly sweep of gray skies and water, the shoreline clustered with denuded deciduous birches and evergreen spruces. An enormous glulam pillar between the windows held up the corner of the building. Its surface had been treated with a translucent white-tinted wax, but otherwise it was recognizably derived from the forests through which I’d passed on the journey from Oslo. I rapped my knuckles on the glulam: it was smooth, resonant, and much less cold than a metal pillar would have been.

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Transforming Trees Into Skyscrapers - by Rebecca Mead - for the New Yorker - 18.04.22
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Mjøstårnet, the world’s tallest all-timber tower, rises two hundred and eighty feet—about the height of the Flatiron Building. Photograph by Paul S. Amundsen for The New Yorker

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