blog post

Trees, Forests, and Cities

Robert Ouellette
How can we improve our world by thinking about trees, forests, and cities as innately connected?
A generalist’s view of cities and forests

How can we improve our world by thinking about trees, forests, and cities as innately connected? In “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth.” Buckminster Fuller laid out a conceptual map for understanding the complex, often irrational forces that shape our world. He proposed that creating a sustainable world of the future would require people who could think across information silos to design comprehensive, proactive solutions for a constantly-changing material landscape.

That generalist’s map inspired my path as an artist, architect, and urban theorist. But in truth the route is not clearly marked. In a massively changing world, to quote my colleague Bruce Mau, sometimes the goal posts one moves towards have to shift in response to new, unanticipated conditions on the playing field. The barked project grew out of that shift. It is an ongoing experiment in making the invisible connections that shape our world, visible.

Architects are embracing wood as a building material that is both beautiful and sustainable. The world needs their efforts in order to house seven billion people in a way that brings value to their lives. But wood is more than a design commodity that can help us be more sustainable. It is part of a living system that’s essence is baked into our human DNA. It is primordial. We cannot live without its symbiotic support just as fish cannot live without water. There is so much we don’t understand about the relationship. But more on that later.

Growing our architecture

The barked images were born from a metaphorical collision between some powerful imaging technologies that I’d used for my work, and ideas from a lecture at the University of Toronto by Mitchell Joachim of Columbia University. Joachim experimented with the idea that building systems can be grown organically rather than manufactured in traditional, carbon intensive ways. About the same time I also led the zerofootprint “zeroprize” competition founded by Dr. Ron Dembo. That initiative sought to promote the world’s most energy-efficient building re-skinning retrofits.

Those influences put me on a mission to look at some of the world’s oldest, most majestic trees with the idea that their bark could offer biomimetic insights into better ways to design and construct efficient buildings. While that more instrumental legacy continues, revealing the beauty of these trees as aesthetic, poetic objects grew in importance. Their complexity and individuality is captured in photographs that have a quiet stillness. The constructed barked images remind me of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s minimal work but crossed with an emergent kind of abstract expressionism. They are a new visual hybrid.

Bark reveals a tree’s legacy

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