House Rule 8 – Use Trees
“Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?” Theodore Roethke asked in his 1953 poem, “The Waking.” Trees have been our natural environment since before we came down from them, and they hold a deeply embedded place in the human psyche. Their generations of leaves are an intuitive metaphor for death and renewal. In a poem that contemplates mortality, did Roethke want his listeners to unconsciously hear “blight takes the tree?” Or just recall the redemptive wonder we feel on seeing a tree mysteriously transformed by sunlight? Beyond a metaphysical import, every tree has specific qualities that might influence its selection as an intermediary between artificial shelter and nature. The poplar pictured above, for example, has brittle leaves that make the wind audible as a gentle clapping.
Philip Johnson called his Glass House a “pavilion for viewing nature,” and referred to its lush setting as “expensive wallpaper.” A year after the house’s completion, Johnson explained its formal influences in the September, 1950, issue of Architectural Review. The uncaptioned photo above accompanied his article, a goes-without-saying nod to his design’s source in the landscape. The image also highlights the incidental but pervasive and integral effect of trees as animating sources of shadow and reflection.
Caspar David Friedrich’s 1822 painting, “Noon,” captures the fundamental allure of a stand of trees. In his 1963 book, Ecology, Eugene Odum wrote: “Human civilization has so far reached its greatest development in what was originally forest and grassland in temperate regions. . . . Man, in fact, tends to combine features of both grasslands and forests into a habitat for himself that might be called forest edge. . . . in grassland regions he plants trees around his homes, towns, and farms. . . . when man settles in the forest he replaces most of it with grasslands and croplands, but leaves patches of the original forest on farms and around residential areas. . . . man depends on grasslands for food, but likes to live and play in the shelter of the forest.”
An admirer of Caspar David Friedrich, the architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel painted “Landscape with Gothic Arcades” in 1811. The romantic appeal of Schinkel’s architectural vision is closely related to the natural pull of Friedrich’s grove in “Noon.” The architect Robert Geddes’ 1982 essay in Architectural Design, “The Forest Edge,” quotes the passage above from Eugene Odum’s Ecology, and takes its title from his name for man’s prefered environment. The forest edge, Geddes wrote, “can be seen both as man’s ideal habitat and as a mythical image. Consequently, just as man has enjoyed the forest at the edge of the clearing which has offered him both shelter and openness, so today we enjoy being in architecture which recreates similar spatial conditions: arcades and colonnades, loggias and porches, thresholds, cloisters, courtyards and peristyles – all of which resemble clearings at the edge of the forest.”
A convention of Japanese woodblock prints creates spatial depth by framing distant views in a foreground of trees or branches. Kawase Hasui’s 1922 view of a scene in Katsusa, Hizen Province, goes further by picturing an entire tree-defined foreground space, and placing the viewer within its protection. Trees placed around a house can give its exterior views a similar spatial depth and sense of shelter, without the expense or artifice of a colonnade or porch.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s rendering makes his 1905 Glasner House seem to peer out from the woods into a clearing.
Charles and Ray Eames’ 1949 Case Study House #8, better known as the Eames House, has a planted forest-edge colonnade of Eucalyptus trees between its façade and the meadow and ocean vista it overlooks. The trees not only frame the open view, but provide a play of shadows and reflections across the contrasting industrial surfaces and interior of the house. Their animation is indispensible to the design’s vitality, as demonstrated in countless frames from the Eames’ film, “House after five years of living.”
Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House was completed in 1951. Despite its 360-degree views, the house very much has a front and back. Its living spaces and terrace overlook the nearby Fox River to the south. A venerable sugar maple mediates this view, while providing much needed summer shade. The ailing tree is now guy-wired together to preserve the integrity of Mies’s vision.
Rule 8 is to use trees.
Trees can bring nature to affordable sites far from the shore or landscape vistas. If a building lot offers no existing trees to exploit, new ones should be included in a house’s budget, and chosen and placed for maximum effect. As well as providing shade and privacy, trees capture the mystery of changing light, give voice and visibility to the wind, mark the passage of the day with the sweep of their shadows, inform the seasons with their changing leaves and, in their slow growth, echo the accumulation of the years of memories that give a place personal meaning. Use trees for these rewards and to extend a house’s sense of shelter and give a foreground to its exterior views. Let the moving shadows of branches and leaves animate the surface of the house and fall inside to vitalize its interior and keep nature near.