How This Antwerp Designer Uses Cork to Create Meditative Spaces of Silence
Wizened cork oak trees carpet the gently swelling highlands of Portugal’s Alentejo region, where Cédric Etienne, co-founder of the Antwerp-based design practice Studio Corkinho, is transforming a cork farm into an alternative healing retreat that will open in 2024 under the Slow hospitality banner. The project builds upon Etienne’s fascination with cork, a biodegradable, renewable resource with sound-absorbing properties that his firm uses as a primary material and source of inspiration. (He first became enamored with the medium after witnessing a cork harvest, a meditative tradition of stripping the bark from trees that takes place once every nine years.) Through the studio’s objects and environments, such as the multipurpose cork-filled Still Room (2020), built inside a 19th-century building in Antwerp that hosts events including yoga classes and tea ceremonies, Etienne aims to develop an “architecture of silence”—providing quiet, meaningful spaces that allow people to “listen to their inner voices without distraction, like [in] a Buddist monastery,” as he puts it. Here, Etienne talks about how he came to revere cork as a building material, and about its power to shape silence.
“I met [Slow’s co-founder] Claus [Sendlinger] last spring after a friend connected us. I was already working with cork in Alentejo, and Claus was negotiating for land nearby. He invited me to think about new ways of envisioning space and creating atmospheres, starting from the emotions they could evoke. [This resulted in the idea of using cork to create an immersive healing retreat.] We’re only in the conceptualization phase, but we’re thinking about a concept we call ‘contemplative hospitality.’ It originates in caring about the guest instead of starting from heroic, ego-driven architecture.
During the fifteen years that I worked as an event and set designer, my energy was always directed outward, toward bringing people into a narrative construct and conveying a message with a logo. Eventually, I felt disgusted by all of this garbage. I dreamt of becoming a conceptual architect whose materials came only from nature, making structures with a soul and without waste.
I really feel like cork chose me. After discovering the material in my travels, I decided to experiment with it, and constructed a pop-up labyrinth [presented during the 2014 Flanders Design Triennale] from raw, burnt cork oak bark that was compressed into bricks. I wanted to challenge, and manipulate, people’s perceptions of the material. Could I give humble cork a noble reincarnation?
The naturally flexible membrane of cork absorbs more sound and vibration than most other materials, so one feels carried back into the womb when surrounded by it. By playing with its density, I observed acoustic shifts inside the labyrinth. Suddenly I was doing what I set out to do: conveying feelings and provoking a sensory experience through my work as an architect without relying on technology.
People felt curious inside this space, although cork creates more of a void than a space by absorbing noise and negative energy to bring humans back to a natural equilibrium. They spoke of feeling reawakened, and I saw how they stopped to touch and smell the bricks as they walked through the installation. Cork allowed me to slow them down by giving them permission not to be busy.
You feel a deeper level of awareness in the silence created by cork. It’s more than the absence of sound; it’s where you meet your thoughts, where the real work on yourself begins. But it’s not always easy, as one needs courage to confront what arises. For me, this is slowness. I want to share this wisdom while changing the way we look at cork. I feel that this is my purpose, to be a voice for the empowering silence that the material offers to us all.”