The simple tree house has been turned on its head by architects, designers and craftsmen, with unexpected results.

Branching out

Childhood fantasy meets grown-up savoir faire with innovative, awe-inspiring tree houses that reinvent the notion of being part of nature. Climb into this trove of canopy dwellings and enjoy a new perspective on the world.

The air up there
There is something about human dwellings perched in trees that bring out the child in all of us – gazing up in wonder at seemingly endless staircases and platforms that seem to extend into eternity. It presents a flight of fancy, a blissful escape from life as usual.

The idea of climbing a tree for shelter – or merely to see the earth from a different angle – is probably as old as humanity itself. Tree houses are chronicled in ancient civilisations and their lore is enshrined in the history of every part of the world.

However, in recent years, the whimsical charm of the simple tree house has been turned on its head by architects, designers and craftsmen who have let their creativity run riot.

Treading lightly
With sustainability and ecological responsibility becoming increasingly part of our modern-day vocabulary, the tree house may also be the ultimate symbol of life in symbiosis with nature. Whether rustic or super contemporary, these towers in the sky are the epitome of frugal, space-maximising design.

Multi-functional
A teahouse, restaurant, hotel, playhouse for children or a contemplative perch – tree houses can take as many forms as the imagination can dream up. Some have been designed by architects, while others are the work of unknown craftsmen. And, although they have different functions and take on many guises, these dwellings are unique and in perfect harmony with their surrounds. Walls & Roofs gives a bird’s eye view of a few multi-use examples.

High design: Baumraum tree houses
With a strong focus on environmental impact, the German cooperative Baumraum specialises in tree houses that blend classic notions of a simple wood-and-rope structure with modernist angles, clean lines and high-design elements that defy the traditional assumptions of what tree houses should look like. One of the key drivers of this design approach is to disturb the natural surroundings as little as possible.

The air up there
A tree house depends to a large extent on the strength and lifespan of the tree it is built in. The Between Alder and Oak project by Andreas Wenning/Baumraum Architects responds to the fact that the tree house is built between two different tree species: an alder and an oak. Located near Osnabrück in northern Germany, this wooden cabin perched five metres above the ground was built for a family with grown-up children.

Traditional

Teetering at the top
Not all tree houses are examples of high design and sustainability. Some people live in far more traditional high-rise dwellings. In the jungles of the Brazza River Basin in the Indonesian province of Papua, local tribes have slowly built their way up into the trees to escape pests (and one another). Their traditional skyscrapers now reach dizzying heights of over 30 metres.

Flight of fancy
Past meets present on a unique Lilliputian scale.

Fairytale castle
Terunobu Fujimori, a professor at the University of Tokyo, Japan, specialises in the history of Western-style buildings that were erected in Japan from the Meiji period (1868-1912) onwards. He is particularly knowledgeable about the emergence of modern architecture through the work of Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. Yet, when he started building, he created unexpected buildings that seem deeply rooted in the past.

In Architecture Now, Vol 6, Fujimori writes: “From my first project, I have tried to adopt the following two rules as a design policy: The building should not resemble anyone else’s building, past or present, or any style that has developed since the Bronze Age; natural materials should be used on parts of the building that are visible, and at times plants should be incorporated into the building to harmonise the building with nature.”
Although the very desire to design structures that resemble no other might seem pretentious, Fujimori remains as modest as his 6,07-square-metre  Teahouse Tetsu (2005), which he built on the grounds of Kiyoharu Shirakaba Museum, Nakamaru, Hokuto City, Yamanashi. He compares it to a “house for a midget from a fairytale”, but also makes reference to some of the most important cultural symbols of Japan, like Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), the historical figure who had the most profound influence on the Japanese tea ceremony.

Made for observing cherry blossoms in the area, Teahouse Tetsu is also deeply rooted in Japanese customs and traditions, from the tea ceremony to the annual sakura (cherry blossom) frenzy. It is “displaced” and nothing is as it seems here – this is what makes Fujimori’s work fundamentally contemporary. It is about the condition of architecture as much as it is an ode to the past.

Living the high life
The hotel and restaurant industries have also caught on to the tree house trend, where visitors can sleep under a celestial blanket.

Hotels
Out of this world
The Tree Hotel, located in Harads, a village in northern Sweden, has turned one of the country’s many forested regions into a low-impact tourist eco attraction. Designed by some of Scandinavia’s leading architects such as Martin Videgård and Bolle Tham, as well as Mårten & Gustav Cyrén, the Tree Hotel aims to

Restaurants
The pod-shaped Tree House Restaurant in Warkworth, New Zealand, has become an iconic symbol of new-generation tree houses. A simple oval form was wrapped “organically” around the tree trunk and structurally tied at the top and bottom, with a circular plan that is split apart on the axis with the rear floor portion raised. This allows the approach from the rear via a playful tree-top walkway experience, slipping inside the exposed face of the pod.

Domestic bliss
Future-focused individuals are taking the high road with residential tree houses.

Suspended animation
The 4Treehouse by Lukasz Kos is designed to accommodate four existing trees on the site and floats in the air like a Japanese lantern on stilts. The three-storey house is suspended from these four primary site trees.

Tree’s company
Shaded by the branches above, Canadian designer Nicko Björn Elliott built a child’s playhouse that wraps itself around the mature pine tree. It is supported on three poles above an S-shaped bench that skirts around the columns, tree trunk and slide pole. As the hanging boughs provide ample shading, translucent corrugated fibreglass was used to clad the structure. During the day, the opalescent skin transmits the movement of shadows from the exterior to the interior. The slats on the interior reflects colour back onto the skin, depending on the sun’s position.

Conceptual future
Tree houses could present a tech savvy solution to limited space and resources.

Modern nomad
San Francisco-based Kyu Che’s sustainable Lifepod presents a multi-use prefabricated remedy for your wanderlust. Straddling the divide between organic and high-tech, the design is loosely based on the traditional Mongolian “ger”. Built to be highly portable, the Lifepod is a functional, off-the-grid mini capsule for modern nomadic living. It can be placed nearly anywhere – even as a suspended tree house.

Rising to the challenge
The Syberite tree house project blends modular design with low-impact living. Layouts are allowed to conform to the natural landscapes around them to take maximum advantage of views and natural light without disturbing the local environment. The thin foundational supports are designed to minimise the impact on root systems and the ground surface. Rainwater collection, solar panels, wind collection and other sustainable systems are also integrated, making the house, for the most part, energy-independent.

Cubic convenience
The mobile, durable Free Spirit Sphere can be suspended from trees, buildings and rock faces. Webbing and ropes anchor the mobile dwelling to its location. Four anchor points are needed to carry the sphere’s entire weight. The interior consists of a laminated wood frame, while the exterior is made from fibreglass.

Full acknowledgement and thanks are given to Tree Houses: Fairy Tale Castles in the Air by Philip Jodidio (Taschen) Web Ecoist, www.kyuche.com, www.weburbanist.com, Architecture Now Vol 6 by Philip Jodidio (Taschen Books), www.toxel.com and www.architypereview.com for providing the information to write the article.