Ask an engineer to build a 300-foot-tall, freestanding, tapered column with a 20-foot base and he’ll most likely tell you it’s going to be impossible—or really expensive. But an arborsculpturist knows otherwise. He’ll simply dig up some dirt and drop some seeds. He knows the tree growing there will be malleable and as structurally advanced as any modern material. For him, the living tree is the perfect architectural building block. It’s the only construction material that will become stronger and taller with age, and the only material with which the sculptor and substance enjoy a symbiotic relationship, both working together for a single greater good. There’s no “I” in “arborsculpture.”
Arborsculpture is the art of shaping living trees into furniture, sculpture, and shelters. Part grazing and grafting, pleaching and patience, it exists in the shady area between landscaping, gardening, and furniture design. Arborsculpturists figure that anyone can shape objects out of dead wood, but it takes a special set of skills to make things out of living wood, to allow the tree to flourish
as you meld it for a human purpose.
“Think of it as the opposite of topiary,” says Richard Reames, arborsculpturist and author of the books Arborsculpture and How to Grow a Chair. “With topiary, you’re just shaping foliage, controlling it all the time; you have to prune constantly to keep that shape. With arborsculpture, once you’ve shaped the trunks, you don’t need to do anything else. You just let it grow through the years.”
The practice dates back centuries, first documented in the 500-year-old miniature painting by Jean Perréal in which an angel is depicted sitting on a lavish (and very psychedelic) “living” chair. The earliest existing example (another chair) was planted by John Krubsack of Embarrass, Wisconsin, in 1903. “Dammit, one of these days I am going to grow a piece of furniture that will be better and stronger than any human hands can build,” he told a friend. Twelve years later he debuted his “Chair That Grew” at the 1915 World’s Fair in San Francisco. The Bilbo Baggins–esque throne—replete with ornamental backrest, armrests, and a six-branch seat—was an instant hit, garnering numerous newspaper articles and running repeatedly in Ripley’s Believe It or Not. And the modern age of arborsculpture was born.
Reames has spent the past 16 years making more than 100 sculptures, chairs, pieces of furniture, tool handles, mailboxes, and fences out of living trees. “It’s just overwhelming how many people have gravitated to this in the last few years,” says Reames, who directed “Growing Village,” an arborsculpture park for the 2005 World Expo in Aichi, Japan.
But what Reames is most excited about is not the largely ornamental tenets of arborsculputure’s past; it’s the future, what he calls “arbortecture”: the construction of living houses. One of his plans is to grow a circle of trees around a cement floor slab with preinstalled radiant heat. As the branches grow, window frames, electrical, and plumbing would be routed throughout the interior. Trees would be coaxed together in a tight weave so branches would meld together to create one solid, weather-tight structure. “A house like this would contribute to the environment—the exact opposite of housing today,” he says. “It would be eco-positive and self-repairing, could last hundreds of years, and produce wood, fruit, and flowers to support its tenants.” It’s a cosmic vision, perhaps better suited to Syd Barrett and Peter Gabriel–era Genesis songs than practical home construction. But recently, Reames has been joined in his mission by a group of decidedly unspacey architects.
Mitchell Joachim and the Human Ecology Design team of MIT published plans in 2003 for a spacious, self-supporting, three-bedroom house composed of 100 percent living nutrients. The Fab Tree Hab consists of a weave of live branches on which a thermal clay and straw-based composite is layered in a stucco-like interior. Water enters the house from the rooftop collector and exits via transpiration. Temperature is moderated through solar-powered radiant tile floors and buoyancy-driven ventilation. Graywater flows not into a sewer but into a “Living Machine,” where it is purified by bacteria, fish, and plants, and enters cleanly back into the environment. It’s Corbusier’s “machine for living in”—naturally. The Fab Tree Hab has been exhibited internationally, and has won awards from Habitat for Humanity and the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art.
Environmentally beneficial, very affordable, not to mention unique, arbortecture and arborsculpture could indeed become practical alternatives for producing smart, eco-positive furniture, landscaping, and shelter. If only trees didn’t take so damn long to grow.