A treehouse builder that celebrates impermanence | ET REALITY


“CAN YOU FEEL it swaying?” asks Takashi Kobayashi, about 30 feet high on a camphor tree growing in the narrow backyard of a Tokyo store. In theory, wind shouldn’t be a factor since we are surrounded by buildings on all sides, but this tree, about 60 years old, has leaned toward the sky in search of sunlight. With its canopy crowning the surrounding rooftops, its upper leaves catch the wind and everything beneath moves gently. The sensation is a little unnerving and invokes one of the laws of treehouse construction: heights you wouldn’t think twice about in a concrete structure suddenly become imposing when you’re on a branch.

Taka, as everyone calls him, or sometimes Koba-san, is Japan’s best-known treehouse builder. He has designed and built about 250 of them, ranging from backyard follies to a monumental work in response to the 2011 tsunami and a jungle site with views of Angkor Wat in Cambodia (created for a lottery commercial Japanese). He has built treehouses for wealthy Chinese clients and treehouses for preschoolers—appeals to parents concerned about their children’s detachment from nature. The arrival of Covid-19, which both increased the appeal of private gathering spaces and catalyzed renewed interest in being outdoors, has only made him and his company, Treehouse Creations, busier. The most modest of his structures, he says, measures four feet square; the largest, about 270 square feet. He is sometimes known as a “treehouse architect,” but he dislikes the phrase: “architect” connotes not only titles and building codes, but also other limitations, such as permanence.

Given all this, it’s a little surprising that he also admits to being afraid of heights. But “on land, if you try to build something, there are a lot of rules,” she says. “When building a tree house, there is a lot of freedom.”

The treehouse he is currently building (for now just a collection of hinoki cypress foundation beams supported by struts) is behind a four-story store called Biotop, in Shirokanedai, one of Tokyo’s wealthiest districts, marked by its comparatively low skyline and tree-lined streets. The store is a curious mix of avant-garde fashion and natural skin care products, enveloped by the abundant greenery of a nursery and crowned by a spacious cafe. Fourteen years ago, the owner of Biotop asked Kobayashi to build a small tree house. He has now returned to rebuild it on a slightly larger scale, with the idea that cafe customers could even have lunch there.

Kobayashi, 65, is small, agile and confident, with a watchful demeanor. He has the rugged look of a lifelong surfer, even if a lingering shoulder injury (“from a faulty chainsaw,” he says) has curtailed his winter outings; It is too painful to put on and take off wetsuits. Today, he perches on a branch and points to an indentation etched into the side of the camphor that marks the edge of the ancient treehouse. The tree had grown around the intruding board, which Kobayashi has since removed. The limb is fatter beneath the cleft, as if what he had built before, acting as a compress, had disrupted the flow of nutrients. He seems hurt by this, pointing out that the tree must be respected. “Because even if a treehouse dies,” he says, “a tree will live on.”

Houses settle over time due to gravity and minor tectonics, but trees, Kobayashi explains, separate things. What distinguishes treehouse construction from most other architecture is the need to accept a certain amount of imperfection: “They have to be a little loose. “If it’s built like a carpenter (would build it), it will break.” He does not like to use plans or three-dimensional models and leaves spaces around the structure so that the tree can continue growing without obstacles. Still, a treehouse must remain in position: Builders like Kobayashi rely on what are known as tree-lock bolts and dynamic lift stops that penetrate the wood without splitting it and, more importantly, They allow some flex, like little shock absorbers.

Kobayashi’s works, which often feature gnarled branches and unusual patterned roof tiles, tend toward the rustic and playful, evoking bird nests or JRR Tolkien’s landscapes of Lothlórien. Her entire endeavor seems to be based on the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, a characterization she does not resist. As Leonard Koren, an artist who has written extensively about aesthetics, argues, the term, which is central and country-specific, has been stripped by cliché but nonetheless represents a “comprehensive and clearly recognizable aesthetic universe.” Wabi-sabi, writes Koren in his 1994 book of the same name, includes “materials that are visibly vulnerable to the effects of weathering and human treatment” and things that “often appear strange, misshapen and uncomfortable.” Perhaps most importantly, “wabi-sabi is an aesthetic appreciation of the evanescence of life.”

And tree houses are by nature ephemeral. While many architects like to imagine that his work has existed for centuries, Kobayashi spends his time building spaces that he knows will not outlive him. (This is not so unusual in Japan, where, as architect Alastair Townsend has noted written in ArchDaily, for various reasons, including the need to constantly modernize structures to make them earthquake-resistant, “after 15 years, a house typically loses all value and is demolished on average just 30 years after being built.”). The life of a treehouse, Kobayashi says, is usually about 10 years. “It’s not going to last like a rock,” she says. “And I want it that way.”

HIS GRIP ON our imagination is longer lasting. Tree houses awaken some primordial instinct; The protohuman Australopithecus erected nocturnal nests in trees. Our shoulders seem made for brachiation, and the human hand today, with its rough palms and the ability to grasp between the thumb and first finger, still bears the traces, notes Frank R. Wilson in “The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain.” , Language and Human Culture” (1998), of an evolutionary movement that “enabled improved climbing and locomotion along trunks and branches.” The publication in German, in 1813, of the novel “The Swiss Robinson Family,” about a family abandoned on a remote island, sparked the first modern trend for tree houses. With industrialization, they became a kind of symbol of the lost vitality of our commitment to the natural world.

Not long ago, Kobayashi tells me, tree houses were almost unknown in Japan. This in itself is a surprise in a nation that is among the most forested in the world; where the houses, until the war, were normally made of wood; where trees have long been objects of social and religious importance; where, according to tradition, the trees are inhabited by kodama, or spirits (as shown in the 1997 film “Princess Mononoke”); where the term shinrin-yokuor “forest bathing,” was invented.

I ask him about him Swiss Family Treehouse at Tokyo Disneyland, opened in 1993. “That’s made of concrete,” he responds. The type of structure that marked my childhood in the American suburbs, a rustic box nailed to an oak tree, was incredibly exotic there. Even in Tokyo, whose density, or what the authors of “Made in Tokyo” (2001), a seminal and unconventional architectural study of “strange, nameless buildings in this city,” call “vacuum phobia,” has fostered frenetic architectural experimentation. food courts built into railway embankments, tennis courts atop highway tunnels: no one had seen fit to include a treehouse into the urban fabric until Kobayashi did it a few decades ago.

His path to becoming a treehouse builder was, necessarily, a winding one. Raised in the town of Shimoda on the Izu Peninsula, one of two ports that opened to American ships in 1854 following the arrival of Commodore Perry’s so-called black ships, Kobayashi says his coastal upbringing instilled in him an outlook toward outside. After a stint in television production, he fell into the vintage clothing market and soon began traveling to the United States, where he scoured Goodwills, collecting trash bags full of clothes that he sent back to Japan. While shopping for trips between 1987 and 1993, Kobayashi came across a book on treehouses by American tree architecture pioneer Pete Nelson, who would become the field’s dean and star of Animal Planet’s “Treehouse Masters.” Inspired, Kobayashi built a rustic treehouse in a Himalayan cedar tree outside his vintage clothing store that he had converted into a bar in Tokyo’s Harajuku neighborhood; It was a place where he could read and leave city life behind. “I didn’t want to just build a treehouse,” he says. “I wanted the lifestyle that a treehouse represents.” Legally, his structure, called Escape, was a gray area (it was eventually torn down by the owner).

Not long after, when a Japanese magazine arranged for Nelson to fly to Japan and build a tree house, Kobayashi insinuated himself into the process. “Taka was determined to be my right-hand man,” Nelson says by phone from his home on Washington’s San Juan Island, “but he doesn’t speak a word of English and I didn’t know what to do with him because he wasn’t a carpenter.”

Seemingly by sheer force of will, Kobayashi made a name for himself in what Nelson calls “this strange little business.” And its influence has spread: there is now a treehouse complex on the island of Okinawa, and in 2014 it was joined by architect Hiroshi Nakamura and his Tokyo-based firm NAP, with support from the consulting firm Arup sustainable design, in an elaborate treehouse on a 300-year-old camphor tree at the Hoshino Risonare complex in Atami, two hours southwest of Tokyo. Resting on a nest-like assembly of hexagonally arranged metal rods, woven in and out of the tree but not touching it, the 260-square-foot structure is topped by a small teahouse, another architectural form in Japan that offers respite. momentary of everyday life. life. “Tree houses are like houses for the tea ceremony,” Kobayashi says. “They are small and enter the room as equals.” That idea was taken to its logical conclusion by architect Terunobu Fujimori in his 2004 work. takasugi-an, a tea house built on tall chestnut trees. (Kobayashi finds Fujimori’s architecture beautiful, although he notes that that project used cut trees, moved from elsewhere, as pillars and was not placed inside a living tree. He adds that Fujimori did not initially call the project a treehouse, ” but apparently now he calls them treehouses.

Later, over tea at Biotop’s cafe, I ask Kobayashi if he has any fantasy projects for a treehouse. “In Japan, all the big trees are found in temples and shrines,” she says. Its sacred nature prevents any type of manipulation. Perhaps, she says, the emperor would grant him special dispensation and he could choose from the best specimens of this tree-loving nation. Otherwise, there’s another revered figure he’s eager to build around: “I really like Keith Richards,” he says. “I hope they give me a commission.”

Locations photographed: Raised forest base: Kusu Kusu at Hoshino Resorts Risonare Atami; tree house in Huuran no Yakata; Treehouse at Fureai no Mori Satoyama Adventure Field (Park). Photography assistant: Hiroki Nagahiro. Production: Ayumi Konishi in Beige

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