Chaos & Control

Johnathan Lum, University of Manitoba


“The project is an interesting experiment in optimizing renewable resources, paired with a study of potential assembly systems. The idea of transforming and using different components of wood to create diverse kinds of enclosures is very appropriate to the generation of sustainable architecture.” – Louis Lemay, juror

Since the industrial revolution, Western building systems have relied on a static understanding of materials and a false sense of control. This often results in muted uniformity and a material system incompatible with the natural dynamic of the environment. What happens when we align our industrialized building paradigms more closely to the patterns of natural systems? 

Herrling Island is the last undiked island within the Fraser River in British Columbia. This project invites the chaos and behaviour of natural systems to guide the design and construction process. By working with chaos, vulnerability, and improvisation, it aims to discover an architecture that is more flexible, active, and effective in addressing contemporary problems. 

The large-scale clearcutting of Herrling Island’s native cottonwood forest has devastated the local ecosystem. This restoration proposition relies on both land-based and water-based interventions, with structures built with wood sourced from the black cottonwood trees already harvested from the island. 

The interventions will be built with unrefined and non-standard components. Traditionally, cottonwood trees are not suitable for construction due to the wood’s tendency to warp and bend during the drying process. But the lumber can be rough cut and processed by hand in ways that respond to this wood’s unique characteristics.

A weir—the low barrier that controls the flow of water in rivers—has served in Indigenous culture to sustainably manage fish stocks; contemporary weirs are used to count the annual salmon run, assess the health of the stocks, and collect other scientific data. The weir proposed for this project blends historic Indigenous and contemporary western methodologies. 

The weir also serves as a pedestrian bridge to the island. It is designed so that each spawning season, the main holding pens, platforms, and fishing fence will be rebuilt by the community and serve as a land-based learning activity. 

To supplement the weir, a wet-lab structure will accommodate workers and visitors during spawning season. The removal of vegetation from the edge of the island channel has affected critical animal habitats, and compromised the island’s natural erosion resistance. To aid in their restoration, each layered component of the wet lab mirrors the functions of its natural counterpart. Instead of a structure that explicitly defines the boundaries of humans and nature, the architecture invites nature to reclaim its territory. 

In response to the mass clearcutting that has damaged the island, dynamic netted tripod structures across the seasonally flooded area will nurture the vegetation and provide temporary habitat for young fish fry and birds. 

The field lab acts as a home base for all land restoration efforts. The massing and articulation of the structure are inspired by lumber stacks and log cabins. The thickness of the lumber counteracts the unstable nature of cottonwood, stabilizing the structure without any fasteners. The elevated walkway creates a vantage point for mapping and surveying the land, especially during the flooding season. As the forest regrows, the walkway will allow visitors to stroll under the tree canopy.

Advisor: Lancelot Coar