London 'Smile' Challenges World to Build Smarter Wooden Structures

If you liked the Cheshire Cat from "Alice in Wonderland," you'd definitely get a hoot from "The Smile."

The Smile is basically a giant hollow rectangular tube that curves at both ends to resemble a grin. At 112 feet (34 meters) long, 11 feet (3.4 meters) tall might be one of the oddest-looking outdoor installations you'd ever see — check out the video above to see the construction process. But the Smile's not just some droll bit of architectural whimsy; it's a unique structure created as part of this year's London Design Festival.

Architect Alison Brooks designed the Smile to demonstrate the potential of wood as a strong, versatile building material for the modern world. According to Brooks' website, the installation is the most complex structure ever fashioned from panels of cross-laminated timber, a building material that's stronger, cheaper, and more fire-resistant than either steel or concrete. Just as importantly, CLT is created from a renewable resource — trees — and actually continues to store the carbon dioxide that trees absorb.

That latter point is really significant, because manufacturing and transporting steel and concrete for construction accounts for nearly 30 percent of the carbon pollution driving climate change.

A view of the interior layers of hardwood.
Alison Brooks Architects

"It's going to open up a whole new world of possibility," Brooks told CNN. "It reveals the possibility of buildings being completely fabricated in wood."

You could compare the Smile, which Brooks created in collaboration with the global design and engineering consulting firm Arup and the American Hardwood Export Council, to a giant structural beam that would go into a building. But in other ways, the installation is sort of a building unto itself. For one thing, visitors can walk around inside it and look out windows.

A view from within "The Smile."
Alison Brooks Architects

Brooks isn't the only one convinced of wood's potential. In Vancouver, an 18-story wooden residential tower, designed by architect Michael Green, is under construction and scheduled for completion in 2017.

The Smile is currently on display in London at the Chelsea College of Art's Rootstein Hopkins Parade Ground through Wednesday, Oct. 12, and guests can enter from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

The structure is built from layers of cross-laminated hardwood, a sturdy and renewable building material.
Alison Brooks Architects