Trees in art and architecture

Time to take a stand for the tree Trees tower over today’s art and architecture — though their roots are not always deep. By Edwin Heathcote Above: Klaus Littmann’s installation at the Wörthersee Stadium in Klagenfurt, Austria. Left: Abel Rodríguez’s ‘Terraza Alta II’ (2018), Hayward Gallery Gert Eggenberger/APA/ AFP via Getty Images; courtesy the artist and Instituto de Visión Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s ‘Horizontal — Vaakasuora’ (2011), Hayward Gallery — Linda Nylin In 1799, William Blake wrote in a letter: “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way.” And trees are still standing in the way. In the way of new palm oil plantations, grazing for cattle, for soy and almonds, for roads and suburbs. But we also seem to have reached a moment when they are being appreciated in the broader culture. Even President Trump agreed to join the One Trillion Trees Initiative. This month, Among the Trees opened at the Hayward Gallery in London (though the gallery is currently closed), exploring images of trees in contemporary art including works by Robert Longo, Tacita Dean, Steve McQueen and William Kentridge, following on from the Trees exhibition at the Fondation Cartier in Paris. And Cambio, an exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London (also currently closed), by Italian designers Formafantasma, takes a panoramic view of trees, ecology and wood. Meanwhile, last year Swiss curator Klaus Littmann mounted his remarkable installation at the Wörthersee Stadium in Klagenfurt, in which 300 trees were planted inside a football stadium and spectators came to see them. There was something momentously post-apocalyptic about Littmann’s installation, presenting trees as something precious, raising the spectre of something so familiar yet so often endangered. The forest and bush fires in Australia and California shored up this idea of trees as a dwindling resource. Richard Powers’ novel The Overstory (shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize) represented another reassessment of trees. Inspired by new developments in understanding the way trees communicate and support each other, Powers builds on an ancient understanding of forests as parallels to human communities, rooted in place and connected to everything around them. Formafantasma foreground the complexity and variety of trees and the products they facilitate by asking whether it is time we acknowledge their rights as beings. Their Serpentine exhibition is a deep exploration of where wood comes from, with exotic timber samples from the 1851 Great Exhibition (held just a short distance from where the gallery now stands), some from trees now long extinct. It ties products to places, furniture, musical instruments and tools, to the trees that have died to enable them to exist. It is also, critically perhaps, a self-effacing exhibition in the show-off world of design. The designers have, truly, been able to see the wood for the trees. Chiming with this burgeoning consciousness is the reissue of Italian architect Cesare Leonardi’s beautiful cult book The Architecture of Trees. Leonardi emerged from the 1960s architectural avant-garde in Italy; in the 1970s he turned his attention to landscape and, ultimately, trees. Together with Franca Stagi, he produced the book with the most astonishing pen-and-ink illustrations of trees, conceiving of them almost as architecture — picturing them in elevation like building facades. It became a bible for landscape architects and designers and its reissue indicates a shift in attitude, seeing trees as something than merely ornament. It also intrigued me to see that publisher Blue Crow, which usually produces maps of Brutalist buildings, has just put out a map of Great Trees of London. Trees, it seems, are being given recognition and rights not only as beings but as a kind of architecture. Trees transplanted into architecture are nothing new. From timber pagodas evoking the layers of branches to Mannerist columns in the shape of gnarled tree trunks, they have always been both literally (in the form of huge beams and logs) and symbolically present at the heart of building. At the 1992 Seville Expo, architect Imre Makovecz designed the Hungarian pavilion around a tree transported from the plain. It was set into a glass floor, its roots exposed in the darkness below. It was a powerful moment, a suggestion that there is the world of the visible and, below it, the subconscious, just as extensive, just as complex. Trees have always been ciphers for people — standing upright, reaching for the sky, living together. Myths retell metamorphoses — think of Daphne escaping Apollo or Lotis and Dryope, all transformed into trees. That trees are rooted in the earth has made them a popular paradigm with architects who suggest that the problem with our buildings is that they are globalised, meaningless, that they are not rooted in the landscape. But you might also argue that trees have been adopted by the culture of architecture as a tool for “greenwashing”. Skyscrapers across the world have recently been appearing clad in layers of leafy lingerie. Trees are being planted on roofs and on balconies, adopted to spare the modesty of the most unsustainable structures. You might look at Thomas Heatherwick’s 1000 Trees development in Shanghai, a massive, crass heap of malls and offices which attempts to disguise its bulk with a sprinkling of trees in massive concrete pots atop columns. It is the perfect example of a phenomenon which uses trees as symbol rather than reality, disconnecting them from the earth, isolating them in concrete cells and applying them as cosmetic decoration to disguise an over-scaled development. Italian architect Stefano Boeri kicked off the trend with his Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) in Milan. He is now working on a Forest City in Liuzhou, in China’s Guangxi Province. At Toronto’s Union Centre, Bjarke Ingels’s designs have created a dim glass tower with a few trees sprinkled on top, as if that makes a concrete-framed behemoth somehow greener. Trees have become a substitute for architectural intelligence. A more sympathetic approach was taken by SITE Architecture with its provocative 1970s designs for stacked suburban housing complex and levels of trees and back yards. SITE, founded by James Wines, proposed an amalgam of land art, Pop art and architecture. Its remarkable store for the supermarket chain Best in Richmond, Virginia (1980) was built around a clump of trees, the remnants of a small wood. Its walls looked as if they were crumbling, giving way to nature. The only one of the Best buildings to survive, it is now in use as a church. These are trees that were already there, rooted into the ground rather than helicoptered in, a very different conception from the dressing-up box trees of the decorated tower. The builders of almost every age have looked to trees for inspiration and they are explicit in architectural form, from Roman temples and Gothic cathedrals to the great greenhouses of the Victorian age and the airports of our own. When builders reach the highest point in the construction process today, they still celebrate with a topping-out ceremony, binding a small sapling to the new roof and drinking a toast of cheap booze in plastic cups. Trees remain more complex, mysterious and beautiful than anything humanity has created and scientific research is still uncovering new marvels such as how they can sense us coming, communicate our presence and how they use earth and underground fungi as a medium, a sentient web. The most recent suggestion is that they emit bacteria, negatively charged ions and essential oils which calm us, making us feel good in the woods. It’s no surprise, then, that architects are still turning to trees not just for inspiration but for decoration. But that is a superficial treatment of trees, an abuse of their complexity and capability and a blow to their dignity. With an increasing understanding of the damaging carbon footprint of concrete, we will, perhaps increasingly, be using timber to build. So as a thanks to the trees we are sacrificing, the least we could do is to treat them a little more respect than using them as window-dressing for second-rate architecture and, perhaps, appreciating them as an complex architecture in their own right. ‘The Architecture of Trees’ is reissued by Princeton Architectural Press. ‘Great Trees of London Map’ from Blue Crown Media,

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