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Super Mobility

Super Mobility

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Published by Elina Karanastasi

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Categories:Topics, Art & Design
Published by: Elina Karanastasi on Oct 19, 2011
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von buelow and synnes
Journal of Architectural Education, pp. 45–53
2004 Peter von Buelow and Kristine Synnes
A Tree for a House
Designing for
The Craig VanLaanen Treehouse and Woodland Retreat is for children requiring ventilator assistanceand who often need wheelchairs. The unique parameters considered in designing a space for thesechildren gave rise to the concept of super-mobility. Working together with a team of volunteerprofessionals, the designers developed the concept of super-mobility and its relation to the sensoryexperience of the retreat. A major component of the project is the branching column, which is thetree for the house.
 Art and architecture are practices, not sciences.The constructions of science aspire to universalapplication. Pictures and buildings need only work where they are.
Dave Hickey
Even in an image-saturated world, we still under-stand space through all our senses in addition tothe visual; we comprehend and experience our sur-roundings by using our tactile, auditory, olfactory,as well as visual senses. When current architecturaldiscourse is strongly influenced by two-dimensionalimagery, how can we as architects challenge thiscultural emphasis, and how can architecture engagein a physical, tangible, yet visual way?The Trail’s Edge Summer Camp near Mayville,Michigan, is situated on former agricultural landwith no large trees. Faced with the paradox of a cli-ent who wants a treehouse but has no tree to sup-port it, we designed a treehouse resting on an
tree: a steel branching column. The asymmet-rical column supports a 300-square-foot treehouse22 feet in the air, nestled between the trunk and alarge branch of the tree.This article discusses the treehouse projectfrom three perspectives. The first perspective is thatof a building and a woodland retreat designed toengage the user in a physical, tangible way and tostimulate multiple sensory experiences, particularlythrough the concept of super-mobility. Second, thisarticle discusses the process of design with emphasison digital design methods, supplemented by moretraditional design methods. The design of theretreat included several opportunities to investigatedigital craft, exemplified here by the branching col-umn. A discussion of design precedents helps tocontextualize the branching column and the designprocess. Third, the article explains the developmentof the Treehouse and Woodland Retreat area as acommunity-based, volunteer effort in which convey-ing the perceived sensory experience of the archi-tecture became crucial in making a volunteer-drivenproject innovative in design.
Super-Mobility: Moving intoTactile Space
In 1989, the University of Michigan’s C.S. MottChildren’s Hospital began a volunteer-run summercamp for pediatric ventilator patients, about half ofwhom need wheelchairs. The first of its kind in theUnited States, Trail’s Edge Camp gives the childrenwho attend it an opportunity to participate in activ-ities from which they are otherwise restricted,including horseback riding, hot air balloon flights,and, once even, a trip on a Harley-Davidson motor-cycle. By offering these activities, the camp, spear-headed by a uniquely energetic director, created anenvironment in which anything was possible. Thus,the camp volunteers were accustomed to perceivingthe seemingly impossible as merely another chal-lenge. In this spirit, a group of tree climbers set upharnesses configured to support people with mobil-ity needs, allowing the campers to rope their wayup into the woodland canopy. The children wereexhilarated by the experience of being in an envi-ronment they had only seen from the perspective oftheir wheelchairs. They wanted to stay up there, tolook around. They wanted a treehouse.After camp ended in 2002, the director, MaryDekeon, contacted the University of Michigan’sTaubman College of Architecture to discuss the fea-sibility of developing a structure that would allowchildren with limited mobility to experience theheight and excitement of spending time in trees.Moving beyond compliance with the American Dis-abilities Act, beyond modifying pedestrian-friendlydesigns to meet the needs of the differently mobile,the design team developed a structure that wouldallow all users to experience super-mobility, regard-less of physical restrictions or limitations.Super-mobility, or unexpected mobility beyondan individual’s perceived capabilities, is made possi-ble in the treehouse through an array of body pros-thetics, including harnesses, ropes, tracks, and racecar seats. Everyone entering the treehouse usesthese prosthetics to be “launched” 22 feet into theair, leaving wheelchairs and other terrestrial imple-ments behind. (Figure 1.) Developing a structurethat minimizes differences between users was a highpriority for everyone involved. Although wheelchairsallow users greater mobility, they can create prob-lems in social interaction. Difference in eye height,for example, between someone sitting in a wheel-chair and someone standing, creates separationbetween the two people. Recognizing that unfamiliar
A Tree for a House: Designing for
but similar experiences can help alleviate this dis- junction, the team developed a structure that isaccessed the same way by everyone and that dis-places the body from the normal horizontal orienta-tion of walking or forward motion in a wheelchair tothe vertical orientation experienced during a hoistedassent. (Figure 2.) In this way, super-mobility isexperienced in the same way by the severely handi-capped and the ambulatory.But super-mobility allows an experiencebeyond that of being hoisted up in the air; this ele-vated location provides a new understanding of thesurrounding area. Making contact with the sur-roundings through the senses, kinesthetically andvisually as well as in a tactile way, super-mobilityallows the climber to enter tactile space.
In his1966 book
The Hidden Dimension
, E.T. Halldescribes tactile space by making an analogy withthe experience of sailing a boat: “the interplay ofvisual, kinesthetic, and tactile experiences. A friendwho sails tells me that unless he has his tiller in hishand, he has very little feeling of what is happeningto the boat. There is no doubt that sailing providesits many devotees with a renewed sense of being incontact with something, a feeling that we aredenied by our increasingly insulated, automatedlife.”
In the treehouse, the dramatic ascent of theclimber being hoisted up into the air alludes to asimilar quality of experience. Hovering in the air,above the familiar ground, while safely contained intheir harnesses, the children, similar to the sailor atthe tiller in Hill’s description, have a “sense of con-tact” with the surrounding woodlands. Similarly, thetreehouse resting on its branching steel columnblurs the distinction between building and context.It is part house, part tree. The children who are oth-erwise limited in their mobility become uninhibited,and in this way experience an exhilarating journeyto a house that is especially theirs.
Access: Boardwalk as ViewingProsthetic
As the treehouse is part tree, part house, blurringthe distinction between site and context, the Wood-land Retreat seeks to do the same. Just as one kin-esthetically experiences tactile space while rotatingon the rope during the assent to the treehouse, the
1. The branching column is the main innovation of thetreehouse. Constructed of steel pipe, the branching columnsupports the house and provides the hoisting point foraccessing the treehouse. Quadriplegic children as well as othersuse tree-climbing equipment to access the house.
von buelow and synnes
boardwalk approach produces a similar kinestheticexperience. Circumnavigating a bowl-shapeddepression and passing beside both the tree and thetreehouse, the design of the boardwalk enhancesthe experience of the site in multiple ways. In thelarger context, the boardwalk is a gauge, a leveldatum that accentuates the perception of an undu-lating Midwestern landscape. Locally, the boardwalkserves as a sequential viewing platform while encir-cling the treehouse before arriving at the launchingplatform. Maintaining accessibility, the boardwalk isseparated from the surroundings by its continuouslevel, but the inclusion of trees and the thin lines ofsteel and cable railings serve to blur the visual andtactile boundaries between the built structure andthe surrounding environment.The tactile space around the climber extendsto include the spectators on the boardwalk. Inobjectifying the subject, we are reviving an architec-tural mechanism similar to that of Adolf Loos’ inVilla Mu¨ller, described by Beatriz Colomina: “Archi-tecture is not simply a platform that accommodatesthe viewing subject. It is a viewing mechanism thatproduces the subject. It precedes and frames itsoccupant.”
For the camper, who is the occupant inthis context, the experience of climbing is as muchabout climbing as being viewed as a climber. In thisway, the boardwalk as well as the treehouse can beperceived as a prosthetic that helps the user toachieve super-mobility. Similar to Colomina’s read-ing of the Mu¨ller house, the boardwalk as a viewingmechanism dramatizes the climbing event by wrap-ping around the treehouse, widening out for spec-tator viewing and seating, then passing by thewheelchair hangar, before arriving at the launchingplatform directly under the treehouse.
A Treehouse, but No Tree?
The treehouse is situated next to a red maple thatthe volunteers named Reta.
On the edge of abowl-shaped depression in the landscape, Reta
2. Installations at the Woodland Retreat: 01—Treehouse. 02—Reta(red maple). 03—Wheelchair hangar. 04—Moon house (restroom).05—Front step (entrance). 06—Boardwalk with viewing platforms.07—Wire frame model. 08—Member cross sections.09—Roof plan. 10—Floor plan.

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