Books | Into the woods

A review of Tree Houses: Fairy Tale Castles in the Air, by Philip Jodidio
Written by Jenna Marotta, Columnist (Books)

"I did not intend it this way, but it looks as if it were a house for a midget from a fairy tale," says architect Terunobo Fujimori of his "Teahouse Tetsu," a tree house he designed in Yamanashi, Japan. Fujimori's deadpanning likely locked up the title of Philip Jodidio's latest architecture volume, Tree Houses: Fairy Tale Castles in the Air (Taschen, $69.99).

When I look at "Teahouse Tetsu," I see not Lilliputian lodging but a stuccoed pentagon of blue-veined cheese with a pair of modern windows. Capped with a black and white embroidered roof and chimney, the structure is tucked inside knots of tutu-colored cherry blossoms.

"Midget fairy tale house" is a better sound bite than whatever kaleidoscopic, artisanal Brooklynese I just sputtered, but the Rorschach cliche applies. Like any great art book and unlike any art textbook, Tree Houses is subjective, not didactic.

Jodidio will not tell you how to think, and therein lies the fantasy: we get our childhood innocence back as we're introduced to 50 of the most remarkable tree houses on earth. And If I see cheese, then damn it, I see cheese!

Did I mention that this book is about tree houses?!? The only rival forest facsimile: tree classrooms. Taschen nails it again - "We broke into your subconscious and found that topic that you've always wanted to read about." In a non-scientific search, I found over 500 Internet users with Pinterest boards devoted to "Tree Houses."

"Mrs. P. had one fault: She was perfect; otherwise, she was perfect," wrote Truman Capote in his diaries about socialite/editor/fashion doyenne Babe Paley. In the past few hours, I've probably painted my bedroom the mint hue of the book's flyleaf, so I can't help feeling almost the same way about Tree Houses.

Unless you happen to be one of those Rorschach-believing, word-associating people. You can easily ruin Fairy Tale Castles in the Air by listening to "Castle on a Cloud" from the Les Misérables soundtrack.

For a corpulent Taschen book, every textual component is breezy. First there's the table of contents, a map of the far-flung treehouses. Illustrator by Patrick Hruby, a Los Angeles artist, literally collaborated across the globe with Berlin-based art director Benjamin Wolbergs.

Jodidio's introductory essay acquaints us with tree house history and all of the sub-genre's contemporary players. According to the writings of Pliny the Elder, Caligula, the Roman Emperor, had a tree house constructed nearly two thousand years ago.

During the Renaissance, Francesco de' Medici attempted to one-up his father by charging a crew to build a bigger, fancier tree house.

Warring tribes in Indonesia still defect to tree houses for safety above ground.

"What is new in tree houses in the past 10 or 15 years is the appearance of a number of highly trained and competent designers who have made this area their specialty," Jodidio writes.

The author outlines many of the avant-garde firms focusing on tree houses. Three architects emerge as the expert's experts: American Pete Nelson and Frenchman Frank Coursier, who each designed five structures in the book; and Andreas Wenning, who designed 11.

Fourteen of the featured tree houses reside in U.S., but there's a long list of countries represented: Austria, Brazil, Canada, the Czech Republic, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Peru, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland and Taiwan.

A huge team of international photographers was dispatched, and I wish people were credited underneath their respective pictures (instead of the standard chockablock grouping at the very end).

Each house, the subject of one chapter, begins with a full-page illustration by Hruby. In an online chat, Hruby describes his work as "minimal, geometric, and heavily designed." To enhance chapters without repetition, "One of the real challenges was to create an illustration that was different from the photos," Hruby said.

Afterwards Jodidio inserted a short paragraph and a sentence-long captions scattered throughout the chapter's photography. In reality, it's a light read and a whirlwind.

One set of remarkable exteriors and interiors leads straight into Hruby's next illustration. Taschen books are notable for their length (352 pages here), but adding a blank page between each chapter was the missing mental palate cleanser that would have enabled individual houses to leave lasting impressions.

These high-up hangouts aren't exactly weekend projects for Dad. Building costs for the "Kapellerput Tree House" in the Netherlands totaled €350,000.

However, the interior of another Japanese teahouse, "Takasugi-an," contains just 2.69 square-meters.

Some tree house include these amenities: TVs, hot tubs, ziplines, bookcases, beds, computers, toilets, kitchens, wood-burning stoves, surround-sound, skylights and spiral staircases. Several function as hotels (which Derek Jeter and I will keep in mind when we honeymoon).

The "Steampunk Tree House" in Milton, Delaware (actually a self-supporting sculpture) looks like a cozy bachelor pad for Edward Scissorhands. "Bialsky Tree House" in Bridgehampton, New York, is a "Tolkienesque" haven for the owner's children. In Eberschwang, Austria, the "Wagtail Tree House" reminds me of a leather dog muzzle.

The world's largest treehouse appears to be "Horace's Cathedral" a 10-story Edward Gorey-esque haunt in Crossville, Tennessee, built by a man acting on his vision from God.

Structures commissioned by Robby Krieger, former guitarist of The Doors, and actor Val Kilmer, are also incorporated.

Tree Houses is an ideal passion project for publisher Benedikt Taschen. His Los Angeles home, the "Chemosphere," is an eight-sided, Googie-style mansion hovering overhead like E.T.'s spaceship. The 50-year-old design by John Lautner is not a tree house, but it has much of the same appeal - a nostalgic apparition with divine views.

Treehouses are trending. Nearly a year before Governor's Island - 800 yards off the coast of Manhattan - opened to the public in 2012, a sustainable tree house was erected by architect Benjamin Jones (a painting party later took place; here's my amateur photo of the tree house upon completion).

Whether for play or residence, the tree house novelty is an interesting aspect of alternative housing, a counterpart to "the tiny house movement" covered by Alec Wilkinson in The New Yorker, and New York's foray into "micro apartments," covered by our own Tyler Falk.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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