I’ve always been fascinated with integrated structures, what’s frequently called land art or environmental architecture. As a child I designed underground cities and drew semi-subterranean houses. More recently, I’ve been bringing nature inside and experimenting with renewable construction materials. But I’ve nothing on Cattedrale Vegetale. The “Tree Cathedral” shows what is possible with patience and integration, working with, rather than subversion of, one’s environment. One needn’t be in competition with nature to have a durable structure in it.
The need for vegetation becomes apparent to me every time I’m temporarily without it. By winter’s end I’ve forgotten spring, but day trips through big cities or afternoons spent in shopping malls make me keenly aware of my dependence on plants to feel normal. As an unabashedly enthusiastic amateur naturalist, some of my discomfort in malls and recycled air might be psychosomatic, but I doubt the whole of it is self-inflicted.
Humanity has spent most of its years as a species living amongst trees. I know some people profess to prefer carpets and air conditioning to the wooded world, but that seems unnatural. For me dependence on plant life to feel human is not a problem to be solved. The problem is how to satisfy a desire for something entirely beneficial.
How does one achieve said satisfaction? My attempts have been hit or miss. I have more plants in my house than I have room to properly grow. What’s more, mine is an old house with few windows and adjacent buildings on three sides. I grow what I can in my yard, but it is a city yard, and thus dark and small. I refuse to cut my weeds until indelicately prompted by the city. They don’t care for natural grasses so much as I, so I’ll cut the plants back to turf to avoid the fine and then let them grow until I get another note.
None of this seems enough. I live in a city where, on a historic block, a man can move in, back alley deal his way into getting parking spots installed on the sidewalk, then retroactively declare my tree to be blocking his right to line of site, regardless of its predating his alterations.
So, what is there to do? My means are limited (no one has thrown money at me for my status as a college grad, I feel cheated, those statistics lied!) I have an uncooperative hometown. I’m not quite ready to divest myself of all possessions and become a traveling warrior monk.
For temporary relief from the grey, there are parks. There are my trips to the plant shops and my attempts to grow in the shadow of the city. There are my botanical experimentation and horticultural studies. None of it seems enough. I want the tree house existence one sees in the various lists of hundred greatest… whatevers. I want a planned city, like Arcosanti, a place made by volunteers and passionate individuals whose intent was to stay a part of their environment rather than to pretend they and it were alien. I want, at least, a house like Falling Water, something seeming to belong to its surroundings. I want the sort of place, like Isamu Noguchi’s hills, where one knows that he stands in something man-made, but otherwise feels as if the space belongs to nature. I want that sort of space and that sort of understanding.
But I live in Harrisburg, where they cut down trees to build slightly larger parking lots fifteen feet away. And the tree houses are made of acrylic, the trees on which the stand are counterfeit or long since dead. Arcosanti remains unfinished, Frank Lloyd Wright was a savant not interested in the world as a whole. Noguchi has been dead for twenty-five years.
The choice becomes, as it has become for battle over atmospheric carbon, ozone depletion, species loss, and rainforest destruction, whether to give up or to fight.
I choose the latter.