von buelow and synnes
Journal of Architectural Education, pp. 45–53
2004 Peter von Buelow and Kristine Synnes
PETER VON BUELOW AND KRISTINE SYNNESThe University of Michigan
A Tree for a House
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.
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