Of Waves and Wood

Rem Koolhaas’s “Wave” floor at the new Prada store in New York’s Soho may have caused a giddy ripple in design circles, but according to environmentalists it’s a wave of destruction.

The building’s ground floor—which undulates to create a combo seating area/shoe rack—is made of zebrawood, which is logged illegally in the threatened rainforests of Cameroon in Africa. While it’s not hard to imagine a high-end retailer like Prada blatantly disregarding sustainability (except for the vapid salesclerk: “How many zebras were killed to make this?”), the problem may in fact be one of information, not intent.

When contacted by the activists of Rainforest Relief, Prada spokesperson Randy Kabat replied that the company had specifically chosen a wood that was not mentioned on endangered species lists from the World Conservation Monitoring Center, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. “Based on the information available at the time of purchase, Prada acted in good faith,” she told Rainforest Relief.

But whether a tree species itself is endangered isn’t the group’s only concern. In Cameroon, where most U.S. imports of zebrawood are from, 90 percent of logging is done illegally. Loggers there kill endangered animals and sell the meat, and deforestation has displaced forest peoples and caused wars among chimpanzee tribes, devastating their populations. Some eco-monitoring groups measure these effects; others don’t. So whose list should an architect trust?

“I’m sure it does make it confusing,” says Rainforest Relief executive director Tim Keating. “The bottom line, though, is that everyone should realize by now that there are problems and they should talk to those that are the most independent about those problems: NGOs such as Rainforest Relief or Greenpeace. While industry might not agree, we have the most honest information because we’re not making money off the sale of the products.”

What Rainforest Relief’s information indicates is that all woods imported from tropical countries are currently problematic. Keating says instead of consulting lists of woods not to use, architects can look to the group’s guidelines for suggested alternatives such as salvage logging, bamboo, and second-growth wood. Downloadable versions of Rainforest Relief’s guidelines for suggested alternatives are available as a Word document or as an Acrobat PDF file.

Categories: Cities