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The Tree House Renaissance

The Tree House Renaissance

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Tree house architecture is as varied as the trees and areas where they are built. Yet the origins of the tree houses have been focused on three areas –the South Pacific, the Far East and Southeast Asia. Those who originally built tree houses built them to avoid typhoons, floods, earthquakes and predatory animals.

It is no wonder then that many uniquely architected tree houses are still found in these areas. But now, they are designed not for social avoidance, but for social intimacy –often providing an above-it-all, numinous experience for those who choose to break the bounds of terra firma, at least for awhile.

Yet, designing and building a tree house has unique challenges compared to building a structure that sits on the ground. Because the architect builds on a living entity, the process requires eco-sensitive and sustainable environmental principles: the tree should continue to grow, and the house should be build to withstand bad weather, especially wind, more common at a higher elevation. So when the architect creates a design, he or she is aware that lower tree houses will produce lower stress forces on the tree roots and stand less chance of being ruined by gale force winds and rain.

The first step is choosing the right tree. Many architects and builders choose deciduous trees, as their wood is dense can better support tree house frames. It also needs to have a solid and intact root structure. A healthy tree will treat a properly installed tree house the same as it would additional branches; growing additional wood to support it. For this reason, multi-storied tree houses have been built over the period of years, to allow the tree to adapt to its new load.

The Tree House Residence

Takashi Kobayashi knows these ideas very well, as he is self-taught designer who has helped bring the tree house concept to the Japanese landscape. He has architected and built 120 houses, many of them tree houses, throughout Japan, and believes that a tree house has the ability to minimize the boundaries between human and environment. To that end, his tree houses are symbolic of sustainability and eco-awareness. He also has a tree house philosophy, one that abides well with most tree house designs. In a recent interview in the Japan Times, he said, “Today, the tree house has become a kind of icon of LOHAS –lifestyles of health and sustainability. And tree houses can have even more of a wellness aesthetic. Everyone enjoys the scenery together and can get rid of ordinary life, which is anyway too loaded down with information and other things. Clarity and simplicity emerge in a tree house, both of which allow greater mindfulness and health for those who enter and stay awhile.”

Yet, for other tree houses, like the Arruba Bach on the Awhitu Peninsula near New Zealand, the function is different: a simple area for guests, a workroom or a child’s playroom. The red box ‘floats’ above the boat space, and is nestled among the branches of the existing, native, strong-rooted Pohutukawa tree—also called a Kiwi Christmas tree, due to its seasonal red flowers. Bossley Architects of Auckland architected this space, where it won one of the 2013 Auckland Architecture awards. The jury said “ it offers a poetically generated response to the restricted site”– something that could also be said of any creatively designed tree houses mentioned here. It also could be said of the Tea House Tree House, growing in popularity in the Far East.

The Tea House Tree House

Terunobu Fujimori was once a leading historian of modern Japanese architecture, but began to design his own projects in 1990. Since then, he has created a number of original buildings, tree houses included. Fujimori works with natural elements local to his worksites that include trees, mud, wood, stone and, often, living plants.

One of the more interesting tree houses recently built by Mr. Fujimori is the Teahouse Tetsu Tree House – a Japanese teahouse in a tree, surrounded by cherry blossoms, at the Kiyoharu Shirakaba Museum in Hokuto City, Japan. The cypress trunk that supports the structure passes through the interior, creating a unique focal point. Fujimori designed this tree house/tea house to be flexible enough to sway with the tree during stormy conditions.

The Too Tall Tea House, is another of Mr. Fujimori’s, located in Chino, Nagano Prefecture in Japan. This Tea House strides atop three chestnut trees. The house is accessible only by ladder, and guests must remove their shoes and leave them on the platform before venturing inside for tea.

In a video presentation, Mr. Fujimori was asked about his design philosophy, as it related to his materials for the tree houses he had built. He said, he wanted to “focus on what architecture was like before civilization, how people lived in their natural environment. I never wanted my buildings to resemble anything after the Bronze Age.” In seeing his tree house materials and design, it appears he had captured that ancient simplicity and transparency.

Of course it must be said there are many other uses now for the tree house: the restaurant, the hotel, the villa rental, and these buildings are growing in popularity, not only in the Far East, but worldwide. It seems the power of the small space in and above the trees, now used for conversation, for meditation, for personal sanctuary, has become a popular wellness magnet for those in want and in need.

Pursuitist wishes to thank for allowing the reprint of this article.