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.