using trees as they are exhibition

05.02.24 - Q&A with Zac Mollica: On using trees as they are and diversifying building with wood

If you’ve walked through the Larry Wayne Richards Gallery in the past month, you’ve likely noticed the collection of unusual bits of wood, smelled the faint aroma of pine needles or even caught Zac Mollica at work in a full-scale replica of his workshop.  

Together, these elements make up the exhibition USING TREES AS THEY ARE, an eclectic compilation of Mollica’s research working hands-on with trees over the past 10 years.

We caught up with him to talk trees ahead of his public lecture on February 26

The exhibition is part of the research and teaching that you have undertaken as an Emerging Architect Fellow. Can you elaborate on how the exhibition is a reflection of this work? 

The Emerging Architect Fellowship has provided me an exceptional opportunity to both continue to develop new work and, critically, to reflect on and learn from an absurdly productive period of ambitious building projects that I had the privilege to be involved in, and eventually to lead, while teaching at the Architectural Association.

Before coming back to Toronto in 2021, I spent seven years living in Hooke Park, a 350-acre working forest operated by the AA as an unusual second home. There I was immersed in an alternative world of wood building, simultaneously increasing my skills in using traditional tools and processes while also becoming an expert at applying new computational tools in parallel. In 2015, we finished the Tree Fork Truss, a central work in my career. In collaboration with a hugely diverse team of experts, in the following years we would deliver full-scale buildings annually, with each demonstrating research into how we might better build with wood. Despite this productivity, time was constantly short to step back from the work and reflect.  

At Daniels, I have had the privilege to digest the incredible amount learned in those seven years lost in the woods, and to explore what it means to continue to develop this research in an urban context. Initially defined by my relationship to trees standing around me, my thinking in the last year has adapted to seeing material all around me—harvesting furniture, tree limbs and anything else we can find to use carefully in designs. 

The exhibition currently on view presents all of this together. It starts with a series of short observations from the last 10 years working hands-on with trees. In the second section, I have selected 350 photographs that prefer process to finished product—quick snaps that capture an important building moment, wondrous trees and many other things.

Further on, I have recreated at full scale the home workshop that I have progressively built in a back bedroom in our home in Toronto. In the final area, I have presented 16 very particular pieces of wood for visitors’ consideration and touch. We have come too often to see wood as a rectangular-ish thing that comes from the shop. Central to this entire work is to remind and reflect on the fact that wood comes from trees, and that it can be worked with in many forms! 

You're working on-site in the gallery during the exhibition's run. Tell us a bit more about your intentions to turn the space into a functional workshop. 

This bit of the exhibition has been such fun. As I schemed up a plan for the exhibition I would install to mark my fellowship role at Daniels, it became essential to depict processes and messiness over cleaned up finished results. When I realized the middle bay of the LWR gallery was the exact same size as my home workshop, my mind was made up.

My desire in working in the space has been to demonstrate rather than describe the way that I work, and to be able throughout January and February to have conversations with visitors about the show. As well, I wanted the show to evolve throughout the two months, and believe that it will only be complete as we head into the lecture I will give on February 26. 

USING TREES has been a multifaceted endeavor for you while at the Daniels Faculty. Can you speak to how all of these elements have informed each other? And what do you hope to be the outcome of your research? 

@UsingTrees has become a big umbrella to cover and somehow bring together a wide range of efforts and small projects under one central idea. At the core is a desire to use raw materials in ways that are close to their natural forms and best properties. Surrounding this is an alternative approach showing how we can design starting from material and an array of what I have come to refer to as tools for close observation—processes and implements that enable incredibly close working.  

The MARC studio, summer design-build program and seminar courses have each provided an opportunity to share and test out new methods—critically, assigning work to students that I don’t know quite what to expect from. 

Asked several years ago, I would have told you that I hoped the outcome of my work would be to inspire and produce a range of wooden structures made from forked and otherwise weird bits of tree. With enough time to think, it has become clear that the ambition for me is far wider and a lot more diffuse. Though a rapidly changing climate has become a common part of our discourse in design schools, we don’t often acknowledge just how bad even the best of our green buildings continue to be for the planet. And so, while I don’t have an easy answer for how we lessen the harm of the act of building at the scale we need to, I believe that a fundamental contribution I can make is to train and demonstrate better ways of seeing, and to help students to develop closer relationships to materials and landscapes. 

At the end of the day, this work is me sharing in public my utter beguilement and love for trees and their products. Here are the oldest living beings on Earth who helped to create the atmosphere that allows us to breathe. There is far more that we can do to make the best use of the products they offer us. 

USING TREES AS THEY ARE is on view until February 26. Register for the corresponding public lecture here.