Why we live in trees

The allure of the treehouse, and the stories behind its rising popularity.

Teahouse Tetsu (detail), designed by Terunobu Fujimori
Teahouse Tetsu (detail), designed by Terunobu Fujimori. From 'Tree Houses: Fairy Tale Castles in the Air' by Philip Jodidio. Photograph: Taschen

The woods of Ashdown Forrest hug the hills of south-west England. Sunlight creeps through the tight clot of canopy and trees sprout like fingers from the soil. Alder, chestnut, hazel, silver birch - chartreuse figurines of uneven heights that sway and curtsey in the damp, clean air. It was here that Nick Weston made his home, for six months, in the branches of an English Oak.

It was April 2009. Lehman Brothers had folded, the world economy was in freefall, and after five years in London juggling catering jobs, Weston opted out. He was tired of high rent and overpriced food. His highlight of city-living had been foraging in Battersea Park and making home-brewed nettle beer. A native of Sussex, Nick moved home with an ambitious idea: to build a treehouse made from natural, recycled materials, and to live there for as long as possible in a state of rustic self-reliance.

“I took stock of my London lifestyle and decided a change was in order,” he writes in The Tree House Diaries, the book in which he later recounted his elemental project. “I wanted to find out what it would be like to live a low-impact lifestyle that was both self-sufficient and sustainable. If this was perfectly do-able, why couldn’t I strive to live like this in the future?”

His experiment was not an exercise in out-and-out survival. Nick, an enthusiastic cook, allowed himself the luxuries of salt, sugar, coffee and olive oil. He set about constructing a home that was comfortable, pleasant and watertight. Using junk pulled from rubbish skips and a small order of wood, Weston built a one bedroom treehouse complete with a small porch and wood-burning stove made from a 55-gallon steel drum.

Nick swapped bills and bosses for hunting and gathering - rabbit, pigeon, eel and wild herbs became staple larder ingredients. Pheasants and foxes were his closest neighbours. He got used to climbing a ladder fifty times a day and listening to squirrels pattering on his tin roof in the early morning. “The treehouse was the catalyst for the change that I was looking for in my life,” he told me. “Life slowed down a lot and allowed me to sit back. The tree house was a symbol for rekindling the spirit of the child within, recapturing the days when there were few worries and anything seemed possible.”

 

Fairy Tale Castles in the Air

A story like his is tinted with romance and scabrous charm. It recalls vividly, giddily, the fearless wonder of our first scrabbles up trunks, into the branches, towards the tip-top, through a tangle of green limbs that swaddled us like a living hammock.

As Nick says, the tree and the treehouse take us back to childhood. In mine, I deeply envied a little hut wedged in the low-slung boughs of the pine tree in my neighbour’s garden. When he felt generous, the boy next door let me come and sit inside. We’d talk, or listen, or watch the deer nibble his mother’s rosemary bush. Hours would pass in relative inactivity - the treehouse held us transfixed.

Does the craving ever leave us? I think not. And in recent decades, the treehouse outgrew its role as children’s playhouse and started a journey towards something else. Tree-hotels began popping up in the wilds of northern Sweden, the jungles of Brazil and the coffee plantations of India. Treehouse builders, designers, and "construction specialists" – not just for kids - opened from London to Japan. Glossy architecture magazines and respectable publishers began taking the subject seriously. Just when did the treehouse become so trendy?

Philip Jodidio is a man who can begin to answer that question. An art historian and popular author on architecture, Jodidio has worked with Taschen to compile a heavy volume on the subject’s best offerings. Tree Houses: Fairy Tale Castles in the Air covers homes, hotels, and installations around the world, with an emphasis on the most "remarkable, unusual structures".

Many were commissioned by private clients or boutique hoteliers in Europe, Africa and South America. Some, with names like canopy, cabin, bird’s-nest and hermitage, conjured an image of cozy refuge - warm woolen blankets and pleasantly cramped living space. Others fulfill a more fantastical brief. Among the most outrageous are the ultra-modernist Mirrocube Tree Hotel in Harads, Sweden, and the works of Japanese architect Terunobu Fujimori – whose Teahouse Tetseu, a Hansel-and-Gretel-like creation, is perfectly perched for observing the seasonal cherry blossoms.

Mirrorcube Tree Hotel, designed by Tham & Videgard Arkitekter (Photograph: Taschen)

Teahouse Tetsu , designed by Terunobu Fujimori (Photograph: Taschen)

Where Jodidio’s tome transcends mere look-book is in his intelligent, historical discussion of the treehouse as both a practical and mythological totem. “The treehouse tells a story as old as architecture, or perhaps more clearly, as old as human shelters,” he writes. “To be protected, to escape, and today to find peace and proximity to nature...”

With its roots in the earth and branches in the sky, the tree is the model of Gothic architecture. Without trees in the forest there would be no columns and perhaps no temples. From vertiginous heights, a man could look down on daily existence like a bird in flight, a step to breaking the boundaries of the ordinary, a hint of immortality.

The treehouse has long been a quirk in the history of human homes. Jodidio keeps the conversation broad – recalling the sixteenth century Italian Dukes who built arboreal hideaways in their lavish gardens (complete with marble dining tables and running water); the Kombai and Korowai tribes of New Guinea, whose teetering forest homes tower as much as 40 metres above ground; even a nod to Julia "Butterfly" Hill who spent 788 days encamped in a 1,500 year old redwood; a now-infamous stunt of environmental activism.

A treehouse of the Kombai and Korowai tribespeople of Indonesia (Photograph: Taschen)

The tree-house’s role in reality and fiction has been equally quixotic. One of the fondest in collective memory was built by Ernst, Elizabeth, Fritz, Jack and Franz in Johann David Wyss’ 1812 novel The Swiss Family Robinson. Later popularised in the film of 1960, this palatial thatched roof tree fort came to define a generation’s wildest dreams. Steel and stucco replicas can now be visited at Disney World theme parks. Wyss describes the moment when his shipwrecked blondes went Tarzan:

What we had been calling a wood proved to be a group of about a dozen trees only, and the roots sustained the massive trunks exalted in the air, forming strong arches… the foliage is thick and abundant, throwing delicious shade on the ground beneath, which is carpeted with soft green herbage…

The longer we remained in this enchanting place, the more did it charm my fancy; and if we could but manage to live in some sort of dwelling up among the branches of those grand, noble trees, I should feel perfectly safe and happy.

Others have dreamt even more idealised bio-habitats, where "tree-cities" of the kind found in science fiction - Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s Green Sky Trilogy, Ursula K Le Guin’s The Word for World Is Forest, even George Lucas’ Ewok Village of Endor - came to represent a kind of eco-utopia. Tolkein’s luminous descriptions of Lothlorien boldly embraced the image of treehouse as transcendental architecture:

Frodo looked and saw, still at some distance, a hill of many might trees, or a city of green towers: which it was he could not tell… There rose to a great height a green wall encircling a green hill thronged with Mallon-trees taller than any they had yet seen in the land. Their height could not be guessed, but they stood up in the twilight like living towers. In their many-tiered branches and amid their ever moving leaves countless lights were gleaming, green and gold and silver.

 

From fairy tale to fact

While acknowledging a heritage that “extends back in some sense even beyond recorded history”, it is the rise in the past “10 or 15 year” of “a number of highly trained and competent designers who have made this area their speciality” which Jodidio sites as the impetus for his publication. This design boom is no doubt the relative of a growing body of interested, paying adults.  

“I was surprised at how few of the treehouses we came across were really intended for children,” he told me. “Treehouses today offer the opportunity to break from daily routine. By and large these are adult ventures.” 

Simon Payne and his brother Adam are the founders of Blue Forrest, a sustainable construction company specialising in the construction of luxury tree houses. Based in East Sussex, the Payne bothers are renowned for designing and building some of the most innovative treehouses on the commercial market: multi-story bungalows featuring balconies, rope bridges, working kitchens and electricity that start at £20,000 each. Their clients are primarily “high net worth” individuals, even ‘celebrities’, whom Simon seems reluctant to name (though what’s cropping up in JK Rowling’s back garden bears a striking resemblance to their previous work.) “It’s definitely a luxury,” admits Payne, almost sheepishly, “but in the past three years we’ve really boomed.”

Their work is playful but considered, a kind of polished Indiana-Jones aesthetic. For Simon, the treehouse represents "unconstrained" design dictated only by the shape of the tree, with an emphasis on the "fantasy" and "fairy tale" elements that so appeal to clients.

A private treehouse built by Blue Forrest (Photograph: Simon Payne)

Interior of the Tarifa Eco-lodgebuilt by Blue Forrest (Photograph: Simon Payne)

Blue Forrest’s profile might be rising, but Simon seems a down-to-earth environmentalist at heart. Kenyan born and raised, he once lived in a treehouse himself - and is surprisingly optimistic when quizzed on its practical future. Could the popularity of the "grown-up" treehouse translate into larger scale tree-communities? “I think it’s feasible. We would love for that to be a reality,” comes his chirpy reply. "But I think it would also take a very unique person, developer, or community.”

He sites a project in Costa Rica called Finca Bellavista, which describes itself as the world’s first planned, sustainable treehouse development. “Obviously it’s still a very niche thing,” says Payne, “At the same time, I think there really is an industry growing around it.“

But for most, a life in the rainforest canopy is far too remote, roguish and mosquito-ridden. Simon and his brother take the impractical escapist fantasy and extract it’s more polite elements – nostalgia, adventure seeking, a love of nature – which can now be lived out in relative comfort.

“Any treehouse conjures up emotions. Everybody gets excited about them. Our clients often have high-pressured jobs, or are constrained in other areas of their life. The treehouse is an escape, a means of stepping away from that world. We recognised a long time ago that what we’re selling, besides a beautiful tree house, is a dream.”

 

After Arcadia

Nick Weston insists he is a realist. A dreamer perhaps, but level-headed. For him, life in the trees was a “solution to a problem”. The problem was passionless work and an increasingly redundant emphasis on success defined by materialism. He belongs to a generation that he feels is losing interest in money and corporate elbow jabbing, who prioritize "meaning" and distrust the economy.  “Life is too short,” he sums up.

His mission seems at odds with the deluxe seclusion that characterises much of the contemporary treehouse craze. What does he make of those who’ve paid a hefty price tag to dip their toes in the fantasy, without having to give it all up? Is their treehouse less pure than his? But Nick seems neither non-plussed nor possessive of his experience. He now runs foraged food cookery classes and courses in wilderness survival for eager amateurs. “Luxury treehouse companies and tree-hotels are definitely capitalising on fantasy,” he agrees, “but why not? Many people have a desire to be in a treehouse, and these companies are making it happen. Not everyone has the time or freedom to do what I did.

Many people have told me, ‘you lived out my dream’. I think my experience tapped into people’s desires because we’re all simple creatures that still have the desire to live a simple, natural existence. There is a direct relationship between nature and happiness.

Arcadia is a region of Peloponnesian Greece celebrated for its lush hills and thick forests. In allegorical language, its pastoral pristine has become a proxy for an agrarian utopia. Jodidio says he sees the treehouse as “a return to the dream of childhood”, and by extension “an infinite longing for the past, a simpler past that suffuses such works.”

“The tree house is really, fundamentally, about the longing for Arcadia: the unspoiled wilderness. Treehouses are almost always ephemeral structures, perhaps much more in harmony with nature than any steel and stone building - a radical form of ecological concern.”

It’s fair to say that Arcadian impulse ties together all the disparate characters who head to the trees – the children, the eco activists, the tribespeople and the tourists. Why has the tree house charmed us so? Because it’s rather like the aviary, the green-house or the gazebo, the back porch with a screen door on a warm evening. It loosens the walls between us and the outside world.

Nick Weston in his Ashdown Forrest treehouse (Photograph: Nick Weston)

The treehouse in summer (Photograph: Nick Weston)

The treehouse in winter (Photograph: Nick Weston)