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Israeli architect’s passion for forestry on view at CCA

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Dan Handel [Photo courtesy CCA, Montreal]

MONTREAL — Growing up in Hadera, Israel, the only trees Dan Handel knew were the cultivated fruit variety. There were no forests on this marshy coastal plain north of Tel Aviv.

Yet, Handel, now 34, has always been “obsessed” by forests and how people have tried to manage them as a natural resource over the past few centuries.

Handel is not a scientist or engineer or even a back-to-nature tree-hugger. He is one of Israel’s outstanding young architects, and Montrealers can now view his exploration of how trees have been harvested and later planted and conserved – or not – over history.

First, the Forests is the name of Handel’s exhibition on at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) until Jan. 6.

Although it has no natural forests, the State of Israel is one big forestry experiment, Handel thinks.

“We have been reinventing the landscape from the beginning, planting trees on barren land, and today Israelis are in the forefront of the science of forestry.”

As soon as he had the opportunity, Handel travelled to the northwest United States where he stood in awe of its arboreal splendour.

First, the Forests, however, is not about Israel, nor about how trees grow abundantly without human interference anywhere. As Handel noted at the exhibition’s opening on Oct. 4, it is also not a chronological account of forestry, although he delves as far back as the 16th century and ends in the contemporary world.

It’s really about how forestry and architecture, in the broadest sense, converge.

Handel, currently a PhD candidate at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, was the 2011 winner of the CCA’s inaugural Young Curators Program, which, along with a new nine-month curatorial internship program for recent graduates, received over 250 applications from around the world.

The CCA was impressed with Handel’s premise that forestry is a form of design – on a very large scale. Forestry today is creating artificial environments that hint at an almost divine ambition.

“The things architects most often put in their drawings are people and trees,” commented CCA director and chief curator Mirko Zardini. “But, most of the time, they don’t care about either.”

Handel earned his master’s degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

As his exhibition shows, this planning of nature has been carried out with varying degrees of success.

The exhibition is the culmination of the three months Handel spent at the CCA, a research centre and museum founded and still headed by architect Phyllis Lambert and at its present location in the 19th-century Shaughnessy mansion since 1989.

First, the forests expresses the importance Handel believes the woods have been to the advance of western civilization. The exhibition, located in the CCA’s Octagonal Gallery, is arranged on wooden scaffolding under four themes, in no particular order.

In “Bureaucratic” forestry, Handel presents the earliest days of what might be called modern forestry, in the Venetian republic of the 17th century. Needing a ready supply of timber to build ships, civil servants gradually learned about qualities of different trees and their growth habits. The landscape of Italy today bears evidence of that attention.

“Scientific” forestry developed with the rise of nation-states in the 18th century, particularly in France, Germany and Switzerland. With advances in botany, the notion of planning forests took shape. Those countries today are filled with what were experiments in building towns and useable trees side by side.

The rise of colonialism in the 19th century led to “tropical” forestry, and here Handel focuses on the British experience in India and Burma. As international markets grew and with cheap labour available, trees were processed on an industrial scale never seen before.

“Economic” forestry is mainly about 20th-century practices in North America and the conflict between the desire to maximize profits from logging and a romantic ideal about the wilderness. What emerged is today’s environmental movement and quest for sustainability.

The exhibition concludes with two videos: one on the irresponsible exploitation of forests in Brazil by foreign corporations and the other about “enlightened” Canadian innovation in finding alternatives to wood products.

The documents, photos and maps (many of them original), as well as books and design models on display were drawn from the CCA’s immense collection and other external sources.

“We were confirmed that we made the right choice in Dan, when [later] he was chosen to design the Israeli pavilion at the Venice Biennale of architecture,” Zardini said.

Handel pursued quite a different subject for that exhibition, which continues through November: the influence of American ideas on architecture in Israel from the 1970s.

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