Dreams, design and the art of the tree house

The next time you consider building or buying a house, consider this: rather than clear trees from a plot of land and pour a foundation into the ground, tap into your childhood imagination and build your house in the trees.

Tree Houses: Fairy-Tale Castles in the Air,” by Philip Jodidio invites readers to tour 50 tree houses from around the world. Jodidio, who studied economics and art history at Harvard University, served as editor-in-chief of the Connaissance des Arts for over 20 years and is one of the most prolific writers on architecture. The coffee table book, which hit shelves Monday, is a collection of illustrations by Patrick Hruby along with photographs of each house.

The cover of the book “Tree Houses: Fairy-tale Castles in the Air.” The book was released on Dec. 17, 2012. The illustration was created by Patrick Hruby.

“From vertiginous heights, a man in a tree could look down on daily existence like a bird in flight, a step to breaking the bounds of the ordinary, a hint of immortality,” writes Jodidio in the book’s introduction.

The author then tours the history of the tree house, from their continued use by the Kombai and Korowai tribes of Indonesia to Cosimo I de’ Medici. “The Swiss Family Robinson,” one of the most famous stories of fictional tree house denizens, makes an appearance as does the work of high-end tree house design and construction company La Cabane Perchee. Well represented among the collection are the rooms at the Treehotel in Harads, Sweden. Among the hotel rooms are a tree house encased in reflective glass and another shaped like a UFO. Also featured is a tea house nestled among cherry blossom branches in Japan. With each house, the book tickles the imagination. In an e-mail exchange earlier this month, Jodidio answered some questions about the book , innovation, design and even the economy.

Q: Tree houses have been around for ages and are often seen as play places for children rather than real homes. What inspired this book at this time?

A: The idea for this book came from the publisher, Benedikt Taschen, with whom I have worked since 1990. Benedikt has a very good sense about the ways in which books can reach people. Maybe it’s just a question of times being difficult and the tree house representing a getaway in many senses — a gentle escapism that permits builders or owners to quite literally see the world from another perspective.

Anchored in the earth, a house can only be moved by the most powerful forces of nature. A tree house likely sways in the wind. Modernity and contemporary lifestyles reduce the contact with nature of most people to an extent that we are cut off from everything that inspired architecture for so many centuries. Some of the tree houses we selected have modern conveniences, but most do not. They represent a return to what we will call “a world that is already there.” One can “escape” from every-day existence, which has so many artificial aspects, to a place where the rules of nature still hold. There is a slight element of risk (the fall), giddiness that has to do with rising above the earth on a simple ladder or stair, and to remain suspended in the branches halfway between the ground and the stars.

What is the most striking innovation you encountered in your exploration of tree house architecture?

It might be best to refer to tree house design rather than architecture, since so few of those who create these structures are actually architects. And then too, is “innovation” the right word? Beauty, elegance, surprise and a state of suspended animation are the real inventions of the tree house. Yes, there are cleverly designed, modern tree houses in the book, even some that exist on the frontier between “real” buildings and ephemera, but tree houses are mostly the product of fantasy and, as such, rightfully escape the standard categorization of more substantial architecture.

Tree houses have an element of the mystical about them. Given your understanding of architecture and design, can you explain why this is?

It’s as old as human existence. Climbing a tree or living in one might be likened, in the first instance, to hiding in a cave for protection from the wild world out there. There are historic examples that range from princely getaways to expressions of willful escapism in a more psychological sense. Tree houses today offer the opportunity to break from daily routine (escapism) to a sort of return to childhood.

I was actually surprised at how few of the interesting tree houses we came across were really intended for children. There are some of course, but by and large these are adult ventures. Yes, to get away from the here and now, but also perhaps to return to a dream of childhood, or further on, that dream of a time when everything was so simple.

I titled my essay in this book “I Also was an Arcadian”, in reference to the myths of Arcadia that run through the history of art and literature. [Nicolas] Poussin’s painting is titled “Et in Arcadia Ego” — a phrase which has caused debate in art history circles as to its real and precise translation, but “I Also was an Arcadian” is one version. There is an infinite longing for the past, a simpler past that suffuses such works. The tree house is really, fundamentally about the longing for Arcadia, the unspoiled wilderness — so really quite ecological, wouldn’t you say? Or why not a “fairy tale castle in the air” — a child’s dream made real.

Tree houses are often associated with sustainability and one-ness with nature. How accurate is this perception, and, if it is indeed accurate, why don’t we more often build in and around trees, rather than on denuded plots of land?

What’s great about tree houses is how few constraints, aside from concerns of safety and stability, really exist. They represent a degree of freedom precisely because they don’t require all the usual installations of a “real” house. If the tree house is durably associated with escape in one form or another, a return to childhood or even to the myth of Arcadia, it might seem inevitable that few houses meant to be lived in on a permanent basis are built in and around trees, as you say.

As for visual esthetics, if you know the Architecture Now series (also Taschen), you can see that I always try to show a broad selection of what exists in the way of recent buildings. I consciously avoid any classification in terms of style and seek variety and quality instead. There are “ordinary” tree houses just like there is ordinary architecture, but an attempt is made in this book to present remarkable, unusual structures.

If someone were to walk away with one “ah-ha” moment after reading the book, what do you hope it would be?

I particularly like the work of the Japanese architect Terunobu Fujimori, who has built a number of tree houses intended for the tea ceremony. There is a whimsy in his work, but also a profound relation to the traditions of his country. His tree houses are tiny and meant also for such typically Japanese pursuits as viewing cherry blossoms. There is no architectural ego expressing itself here, just a smile and an appreciation of irony -- the inversion of accepted values and real thought about just what a building is.

Is there an innovation generally in architecture that you are currently most excited about?

Economics are of course a factor in what is happening right now in architecture. There are fewer huge buildings, fewer “crazy little buildings” as the architect Arata Isozaki once put it, and an overriding concern to make things as inexpensive as possible. I believe that this situation, though it may not be comfortable for architects who are trying to earn a living, engenders a great deal of invention. How can one build an interesting structure for a low budget? Since good architecture is generally about problem solving, it might be said that this attitude is just the current avatar of what architects have always done. Or one might be more adventuresome and refer to this time as being one of “creative destruction,” as Joseph Schumpeter put it — the old order is being swept aside, and new rules have already been put in place.

What do architects often get wrong when they seek to be innovative? And what, to your mind, are the hallmarks of great architecture?

I am not sure that architects often go wrong when they seek to be innovative. Frank Gehry wanted to be as innovative as his artist friends, and by many measures, he has succeeded, changing attitudes about contemporary architecture in the process. Being “innovative” may also have to do with creating structures that nobody has tried to build before, something of a hit and miss process by any stretch of the imagination.

I feel that innovation that comes from a deep and solid understanding of what can be done in architecture is the most durable and successful kind. Being original for the sake of being original might be the definition of the problem you refer to — being “innovative” may not be quite the problem that being “original” can be. Oscar Niemeyer, who just passed away at the age of 104, was in many ways the most significant architect of the 20th century, Mies, Wright and Corbu notwithstanding. He called his autobiography “The Curves of Time” — the curves of his native Rio, or the curves of a woman’s body, he called on forms that were always there, and in fact influenced Le Corbusier more than the reverse. This digression (which surely will not please everyone!) has to do with answering your second question — about what makes “great architecture.”

The question is nearly as complicated as what makes great art. Perhaps durability and the appreciation of many generations of observers are the real tests. Or one might be less inclined to wait centuries to know and say that great architecture has to do with “a world that is already there.” It was [philosopher] Maurice Merleau-Ponty who wrote, “… I create an exploratory body dedicated to things and to the world, of such sensitivity that it invests me to the most profound recesses of myself and draws me immediately to the quality of space, from space to the object, and from the object to the horizon of all things, which is to say a world that is already there.”

You are a master of not only architecture, but also studied economics. As you know, Europe and the United States are struggling with their own economic crises, with much talk of the “fiscal cliff” here in the United States. This may be a bit far-flung, but are there elements from the worlds of architecture and design that could be applied to the problem-solving process currently being undertaken by policy makers to right the global economy ship?

It seems obvious that architecture is almost immediately subjected to the constraints of what might be called economic reality. Survival for the architect means being able to adapt to new conditions, to go forward when there is almost no more money on the table, to invent (to innovate?) when conditions are difficult. Are politicians acting to solve real problems in the same spirit, or are they worrying about their own reelection.

Of course building a small house for a single client does not involve all of the bureaucratic problems of running a country. Even a complex building on a large scale can still be conceived by a single person, though many services and constraints also form the realm of the possible. The matter of scale is important, national economies are by definition more complex than any architectural project, and yet, what if the spirit of problem solving that must animate good (or great) architects could be applied to politics and the world of the economy?

 
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