By Jody McCutcheon
Green design existed long before the idea of green design. Case in point: the art of arbortecture, or tree-shaping, has been practised for centuries. Some of northeast India’s living root bridges were established five hundred years ago.
So when Peter (Pook) Cook and Becky Northey formed Pooktre Tree Shapers in 1995, they weren’t exactly breaking new ground (so to speak). What they did that no one else had done was grow trees shaped like people, lending their work an explicit human touch. Doesn’t a forest of people-shaped trees seem like the ideal symbol of enduring fellowship between human and nature?
Besides these dramatic, Thoreauvian odes and other, more abstract sculptures, Cook and Northey also grow beautiful furniture and jewellery. Their “orchard” is filled with trees shaped like chairs, tables, hat-stands and mirror and picture frames. They also create accessories such as necklaces, pendants and rings. Smaller items take as little as three to six months (one or two growing seasons) to grow and dry, while larger pieces can take a decade. Some trees, such as the people trees, remain alive and uncut as final works; others are harvested and manipulated into form.
Sudden contortion can over-stress a tree, especially if it’s bent or manipulated beyond normal flexibility range. Instead, Pooktre tree shaping relies on gentler methods, including inosculation (the grafting of two or more trees together) and a gradual shaping process. The trees are grown along predetermined design pathways, with particular focus on the tree’s shaping zone, an area that can be stressed or manipulated without harming the tree. This damage-free method is possible because trees produce what Cook and Northey term “muscle” wood, which allows a tree to change orientation of its limbs or trunk. Think of a contorted tree snaking along a waterway, or along the ground, and you get a good idea of “muscle” wood’s abilities.Creating works from living trees eliminates the need for more common, inorganic and less sustainable building materials, such as plastic, metal, even wood from felled trees. Tree shaping is also much less energy-intensive a process than, say, plastic or steel production. Finally, arbortecture-inspired buildings produce less carbon dioxide than those fashioned from traditional materials, as the living tree will absorb the building’s emissions.
Tree-shaped design is clean, green, and totally boutique. If the practice piques your curiosity, rest assured: Cook and Northey have written a book, Knowledge to Grow Shaped Trees, explaining their techniques. As mentioned, these pieces take plenty of time to develop; so the sooner you start, the better—for you and the planet.