trees, architecture + magic
This spring, some generous and inspirational colleagues of mine asked me to participate in a creative event – Pecha Kucha – “chit chat” in Japanese – a rolling simultaneous global event happening in cities like tokyo, berlin, paris, sydney, seattle. Artists, designers, architects, and all creative spirits gather and share their inspiration – in a presentation of 20 slides, 20 seconds per slide – 6 minutes and 40 seconds. That’s it – everything else is up to you. I savored the opportunity to talk about my love of trees and architecture, and here is just the beginning – just the 6 minutes and 40 seconds, more, to come..
My earliest and deepest childhood memories are entwined with trees. I remember wandering through the forest for hours, tumbling down ravines and inhaling the fragrance of deep forest earth. I remember climbing to the tops of young birch saplings to see how flexible and resilient they could be, before they might snap. This is where I spent my first 6 years, in the richly layered forest of our 20 acres.
I spent hours observing the world from our tree-house in the backyard garden, watching spiders weave their web-nets between the branches. And there was gazing at the sky through tree-canopies and their endless patterns and interactions with light. By the time I was 5 years old, after my first attraction to the color red (as in red shiny shoes and ribbons and dresses), green was imbued into the color of my spirit – the green of a broad newly sprung leaf backlit by sunlight.
The woods were full of wonder, but there was a darkness there, too – an element of danger – there was an old man living in a log cabin (a tree structure), in one of the patches of forest in “the murmuring pines” suburb of Portland where we moved to when I was 6 years old. There were so many things I learned and explored within the canopy of those murmurings. There were mysterious rustlings, unseen creatures, and spiders, too.
There was also the story of why my grandfather was missing 2 fingers from his right hand – from the falling of a widow-maker branch on his hand while he was carrying an axe on his shoulder, having finished a day of logging trees in Ryderwood, Washington – the logging town where my father was born, and only a few miles from my own birthplace of Castle Rock, Washington.
I had spent hours being coerced to sit in church every Sunday, but I was daydreaming about the forest while the sermon droned on endlessly, about why anyone who wasn’t in church that day was going to burn in hell – I was magnetized by the graceful arches of bent beam timbers overhead, and framed the stained glass windows – like that sunlight through tree canopies.
I never really felt closer to god in church, but I was always drawn to that magical meeting of the highest reach of the tree to the sky. There was a book I read about the life story of a 1000 year old tree, written in the tree’s voice, and that fed my imagination that trees were old, enlightened beings, that I would eventually become a tree.
Then I studied more, and played more, with trees. I climbed them, jumped out of them, swung off of them, inhaled them, kissed under them, listened to them, and created fantasy worlds within them. Stories like the Lord of the Rings, where the Ents (ancient tree spirits) could be aroused and become mobilized armies
and the wizard of oz where they could be evil and attack you, but trees only seem to go to war in retaliation for your abuse and assumption that they were yours to pick from. And then there was heartbreaking story “the giving tree” by shel silverstein, the story of a boy whose life consumes the tree, slowly, until he is an old man sitting on the stump that is left, all of the giving from the tree of it’s life for his happiness, with joy.
As I made that awkward transition from girl to woman, I sought refuge under their canopies, inhaling the deep scents of cedar, pine, earth, roots. We spent summers backpacking in the north cascades wilderness areas, dazled by the stunning beauty of larch trees and granite cathedrals.
I felt the very same pull, the force of attraction to architecture – but at first, the connection to my love of the forest, and architecture was obscure. Maybe my career has been built on the sacrifice of trees – creating buildings from them, clearing forests for those buildings, too. And in earlier days, there was only an underlying consciousness to the idea of sustainability.
It seems that if you look for a pattern, a number, a symbol, it then appears everywhere you look. In my studies of architectural history there were certainly obvious links to trees, forests, and architecture. One book that makes the striking parallels is “architecture, nature and magic”, by William Lethaby -a beautiful concise book on the history and symbology of architecture.
Beginning with the concept of the world fabric, lethaby opens with our modern challenge “at the inner heart of ancient building were wonder worship magic and symbolism: the motive of ours must be human service, intelligible structure, and verifiable science.”
“agreed by competent scholars that a common early explanation of the earth and the heavens was that there was a central stem and that the revolving sky was sustained by its branches”. The most ancient dwellings in Europe and Egypt were round structures with a central post toward which the roof would rise – cut from a tree or sometimes built around a living tree. The idea of a column was inseparable from that of a tree. Thus it was that columns came to have capitals of foliage and reeded stems.
And there is Paolo Portoghesi’s book “nature and architecture” there are too many references to review in 20 second – here is one example of the structural model that trees give to us in city planning – a great leap of scale from the microscopic structure of a leaf to the aerial view of this Italian city. This book is densely packed with wonderful examples of architecture modeled from nature.
Working in Japan a few years ago, my resonance with trees and architecture became powerfully entwined. My client was enlisted by the Japanese government and leading banks to restructure and re-birth a failing retail brand, SOGO. One night I was whisked away from the never-ending meetings over to a long serpentine section of the ancient imperial palace grounds moat, at the peak of the cherry tree bloom – a national event celebrated by thousands. I became partly japanese as I joined the collective sighs of thousands as a slight breeze showered blossoms over us in the up lit night sky.
I ran miles across town the next morning to wander again among the hundreds of ancient trees, and they then became a symbol of rebirth in both the project and my life, and in my connection to the people of Japan. We splayed branches and blossoms over the façade, in the stone floors, the railings, layering in ginkgo leaves for the added connection to the tree-lined boulevard of Shinsaibashi, and in tying the people of the community with the symbology of rebirth, prosperity and longevity.
The completion of that work led me to Jakarta, where the Indonesian owner of Seibu asked us to create a new flagship as this Japanese brand entered the market. Surprising that an American designer is enlisted to create a Japanese store in Indonesia..
We came closer to creating the depth and layering of a forest – creating a true envelope of branches, leaves, blossoms – the effusive nature of the Indonesian culture infused this work with an energy unique to it’s people, their incredible craftsmen and willingness to make anything you could imagine.
And in exploring the idea of enveloping, the forest has become a powerful symbol of the difference in form and object making, but rather creating architecture – space – environments for the human theatre of activity. In this profound little book, “the eyes of the skin” by juhani pallasmaa, we architects are accused of creating places with frontal/object driven perception – not understanding the power of peripheral vision – and sound – like the mystical sounds of the bamboo forest in Kyoto.
I’ve spent hours fascinated with this amazing book, “the meaning of trees” by fred hagenede - the archetypes and symbology of trees are universally linked to spiritual meanings across cultures and religions all over the world. Where would we be without eve and that apple tree? Would we care that H.H. the Dalai Lama is coming to seattle today if the Indian prince Siddhartha Gautama hadn’t achieved enlightenment while sheltering under the bodhi tree?
grateful, to all who have walked along this path, who share this connection of beauty, wonder, and deep inspiration - and the love of trees.
The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a
green thing that stands in the way. Some see Nature all ridicule and
deformity, and some scarce see Nature at all. But to the eyes of the
man of imagination, Nature is Imagination itself.
- William Blake, 1799, The Letters