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biophilic cities: an urban treehouse exhibition

in biophilic cities

Treehouses commonly recall childhood memories and adventurous play stories. But why shouldn’t they be for adults too?

What follows is a biophilic design review of 10 treehouse projects for public use whose designs are directed to children and adults alike.

the context

Treehouses at Kew is an architectural initiative organized by the Museum of Architecture and the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew. The brief of the competition has been to design spectacular treehouses around different tree species in the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew, a garden in London listed among UNESCO World Heritage Sites for its botanical variety as well as its role in ecological conservation and study across history. The initiative will culminate in an outdoor exhibition taking place in 2023, where treehouses will be open for visits. 3 themes were proposed in the brief: celebrating play, highlighting nature’s architecture and biomimicry, and showcasing the use of sustainable materials and innovative designs.

The shortlisted projects responded to the brief in different ways, that we’ll summarize in 3 biophilic values:

playful designs

Playful treehouses create spaces for children and adults to engage with nature through play, a skill that too many people tend to lose/disregard while growing up. Through intriguing features, these designs invite visitors to venture up the tree canopy in an explorative experience that stimulates curiosity and imagination. An approach that connects to the adventurous character of treehouses.

Polypore/Play that Fungi Music (winner in the celebrating play category) is a playful treehouse whose shapes are inspired by the world of fungi. The space features engaging play opportunities both at ground level and up the tree. Colourful mushrooms on the ground become climbing and jumping props, while two partially hidden tree-top platforms are an invitation to explore the space further.

View of the playgroung treehouse from the outside.
Credit: India Aspin + Amy Jenkins Smith
View of a covered seating area.
Credit: India Aspin + Amy Jenkins Smith
View of the playgroung treehouse and mushroom-shaped props for playing.
Credit: India Aspin + Amy Jenkins Smith

Treetop Playscape is an enveloping shell developed at the tree base. Its refuge-like design is comforting and inviting, yet it offers different play opportunities: climbing, hiding, sliding. Colourful arms spike out of the tree. They’re amplifiers, aimed at expanding the playful experience from people to the tree, animals, and the elements. For example, a squirrel jumping on an amplifier would cause branches to rustle on the other side of the tree. This feature highlights how the treehouse belongs equally to people and nature, while creating occasions to observe nature in action.

View of the treehouse enveloping the tree.
Credit: Unknown Works

contemplative designs

Contemplative treehouses create spaces to engage with nature in unusual ways. Either they take advantage of their raised position to offer prospect views over the surroundings, or they invite visitors to slow down, observe details, and enjoy multi-sensory experiences that include views and non-visual interactions. With this approach, the treehouse becomes an observatory and a space to engage with nature.

Linden Thing (winner in the sustainable materials and innovative designs category) is a two-story treehouse with a minimal structure supported by real branches. The first floor is an open portico that welcomes casual encounters, while the second floor is a glass box that leaves the view entirely open. Lime flower tea is offered as part of the experience, incorporating a taste element in the design while fostering a deeper appreciation of the Silver Lime tree the treehouse is built around.

View of the treehouse with people sipping tea and looking out of the glass box.
Credit: Patrick Fryer + Thomas Randall-Page + Xylotek

MushRoom EarthRoom is a spherical structure creating an observatory around the tree trunk. Getting closer to the end of its life, this Norway Maple tree trunk is being populated by a variety of fungi and lichens, a richness that this project celebrates bringing attention to the continuity of life in nature. The rather closed structure frames all the sensory richness happening around the tree (from smells to textures), while the ribbed surface creates interesting light plays. The treehouse can be climbed from the inside while observing the tree trunk from close before turning outwards to admire the surroundings through the top opening.

Spherical treehouse embracing the tree trunk.
Credit: Tonkin Liu + Sam Clark from Moro + Gary Grant from Green Infrastructure Company + Martin Bailey from Go Foraging + Tom Baxter from Bristol Fungarium

Finghi is a bridge-like structure that guides visitors through an open-air walk towards the main treehouse, with several points of interest along the way. From trees to the cellular patterns of mycelium, the structure’s shapes mimic natural forms. Real mushrooms growing on the treehouse legs introduce a wild element people can interact with. And once inside the treehouse, visitor can enjoy a prospect view from a protected space.

View of the bridge and treehouse.
Credit: Studio John Bridge
View from inside the treehouse.
Credit: Studio John Bridge

The Nest is an organic shaped walk around the tree. Finished with intertwined branches, the structure looks like a giant bird’s nest, integrating with the surroundings seamlessly. Walking on it offers a multitude of viewpoints to observe both the tree itself and its surroundings from different heights and distances.

View of the nest-like walk wrapping around the tree.
Credit: Ignacio Garcia Donoso and Sabela Rey Vila
Upside down view of the path.
Credit: Ignacio Garcia Donoso and Sabela Rey Vila

A Tower of Trees is an architectural structure built around a staircase. Arched openings and balconies create several contemplation points to observe the world while climbing up the tower. Small trees are scattered around the structure, providing a close-up look at foliage along the way.

View of the treehouse with people looking out from the balconies and openings.
Credit: Agenda Architecture

Bower to the People is a series of bowers creating refuge-like spaces at the tree base. The wooden structures are shielded with a bright covering that – despite being made of woven plastic offcuts – maintains an organic look, somewhere in between an animal den and vernacular architecture.

View of the bright treehouse dens.
Credit: Built Works
View of the treehouse entrance, showing the internal staircase.
Credit: Built Works

community designs

Community-oriented treehouses create aggregation spaces for people to casually meet, spend time together, and have a conversation. Focusing on human interaction, the treehouse becomes a destination meeting point for public use. An approach that nurtures a shared sense of community while strengthening the feeling of belonging.

The Outdoor Room is a raised platform covered by a wood roof that organically rises from the ground. Perceived as an enclosed room, this treehouse creates a meeting venue that sits in between private and public, closed and open.

View of the treehouse next to the tree.
Credit: NUDES

An Audience with Nature (winner in the architecture and biomimicry category) builds an amphitheater-like shape around the tree, placing nature on stage. The structure develops organically creating individual seating pods that lend themselves to conversation or quiet time (when seating deep into them). Seating pods are both at ground level and elevated. Thin ladders lead to the latter while adding an element of fun and adventure to the experience.

View of the treehouse amphitheater with people chatting and kids playing.
Credit: Kevin Kelly Architects + Stand

Despite being commonly associated to play time for children, treehouses can be more and for a wider audience. Treehouses can offer occasions to engage with nature from a different perspective, or bring people together around nature.

Hopefully, the ideas proposed by these projects will inspire the development of more nature-centered, engaging, and accessible public spaces around our cities!

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