Located in the Leonardo campus of the Politecnico di Milano, Italy, The Patient Gardener explores the architectural capacities of trees and plants when stewarded with a particular purpose in mind over the long term. It is designed to be a two-storey study retreat in which ten Japanese cherry trees comprise the main building material. Ten cherry saplings have been planted in a circle 8 m in diameter, with each tree being gently pulled towards the middle of the circle by a rope that is attached to a temporary, central wooden structure. With time, these trees will form a dome, and then carry on outwards and upwards past the apex so that the retreat will eventually have an hourglass shape. Furniture made from organic materials will also be part of the retreat.
Visiondivision had conceived the project in anticipation of the week-long Milano International Architectural Workshop conducted in October 2011 at the Politecnico di Milano, to which they were invited as guest professors. This workshop was oriented by the theme ‘forests’, and it sought to encourage students to reflect upon the ecological implications of the fast-paced lifestyles of urban citizens and the architectural and design practices that contribute to those lifestyles. The Patient Gardener offers a counterpoint to the accelerated and wasteful building and manufacturing conventions of the twenty-first century. Founded upon the principle of patience, it asks people to take the long view and imagine the form the structure will take 60 to 80 years from now. By taking this approach, the artists envisage a different kind of architecture in which time is enshrined as a valuable contributor to the success of a project.
A simple maintenance plan, involving gently bending, twisting, braiding, pruning and grafting the plants, will need to be followed by students and staff at the Politecnico over several decades.
The artists’ primary aim was to create a building simply by encouraging nature to grow into a useful structural form. They also wanted to ensure that the retreat would ultimately be an inviting and homely space: enclosed, comfortably furnished, beautiful and, ideally, fruit-bearing.
The project was conducted in an educational setting, and was designed to give architecture students the opportunity to work with and be mentored by experienced architects, and to participate in a collaborative process. In addition, the temporally extended nature of the project has important social implications. It requires participants to adopt a somewhat selfless and generous spirit, as the benefits of their labour will only be experienced by people attending the campus several decades from now.
The Patient Gardener was directly inspired by the brief provided by MIAW.2/forests, the second Milano International Architectural Workshop. This workshop (which encompassed nine other projects) sought to use the ‘forest’ as a metaphor and a source of ideas for imagining how architecture can address the complex needs of urban living in sustainable ways. This thematic focus was explicitly addressed to the global phenomenon of deforestation, and was in part inspired by the fact that 2011 was the International Year of Forests. The workshop explored a range of themes around ethical and sustainable practices for urban living, and highlighted the fact that it is highly problematic to treat the built environment and the natural environment “as if they were part of two separate worlds.” They asked students to reflect on the way in which forests inhabit our cultural imaginary and their place in our lives as a source of food, fuel and structural materials. It also asked students to reflect on the visual and thematic affinities that exist between cityscapes and forests; to consider, for instance, the way the verticality of forests finds an echo in the verticality of the metropolis. These ideas provided the context for the establishment of The Patient Gardener.
Visiondivision wanted the project to exemplify the spirit of patience, stating that “If we can be patient with the building time we can reduce the need for transportation, waste of material and different manufacturing processes, simply by helping nature grow in a more architectonic and useful way.” Thus a primary ecological aim was to make the retreat a site for sustained stewardship, with the hope that this tradition may be brought to bear on the need for architectural practices to be sustainable. The project also sought to encourage people to think creatively about the usability of timber by providing an example of how one can take advantage of the inherent strength and stability of wood when it is in its living state.
OUTCOMES AND IMPACTS
The success of this project will very much depend on the commitment of students and staff at the campus to its maintenance.
The work could be interpreted as a kind of ‘slow’ architecture, akin to the ‘slow’ food movement and other aesthetic and life-style movements, which resist the trend towards acceleration in the twenty-first century. It reminds observers that we are surrounded by things of beauty and quality—natural or otherwise—in which the passing of time has been a vital to their attainment of those attributes. In The Patient Gardener we find another manifestation of the ecological principles of visiondivision’s architectural/artistic practice (similar to Chopstick). These principles are founded upon reverence for traditions of craftsmanship and artisanal practices, an appreciation for the intrinsic qualities of natural materials prior to their dissolution through manufacturing, and an economical design methodology that seeks to marry the beauty of simplicity with the frugal use of resources. The project also appeals to the imagination by alluding to the world of childhood; to tree climbing, tree houses and the possibilities for escape and seclusion amongst the branches.
The project made use of minimal resources. The maintenance plan documents all the techniques required to ‘build’ the structure, all of which involve a small amount of human labour and basic gardening resources.
In October 2011, visiondivision conducted a week-long workshop at the Politecnico di Milano, one of ten projects that comprised the 2nd edition of the Milano International Architectural Workshop (MIAW.2/forests). Guest scholars formulated a concept for a project in response to the theme of ‘forests’, and mentored a group of university students over the week to develop the project.
With the students in their particular group, visiondivision planted the Japanese cherry tree saplings in a circle. These trees were chosen for their strength, their beauty and because they are amenable to having their growth guided. With the exception of two pairs of trees which are close together to form staircases in the future, the trees were planted equidistant from each other. A temporary wooden structure, 6 m high was also built to which the saplings are attached with string. These strings gently pull the saplings towards the centre of the circle, which will create a bend in the trunks as they grow. The stairs, handrails and safety features of the retreat will be grafted from fruit trees, generating food simultaneously. Small wires will guide branches to take the form of stairs. Chairs were created from shaped cardboard structures whose sections contain soil and planted seeds, upon which grass that will take root has been draped. A puff that will ultimately sit in the upper dome was created from a potato sack which contains a mix of straw, soil, grass seed and fertilizer and positioned on the tower. A rope that has one end submerged in water and one end embedded within the sack will keep the puff nourished. A table is made from slim wooden pieces which have string woven through them. Hedras will be grown across this lattice and ultimately fill out to create a horizontal plane.
Cilento , Karen. “The Patient Gardener / Visiondivision.” ArchDaily: Architecture News, posted October 28, 2011. http://www.archdaily.com/180372 (accessed March 12, 2013).
“Get Into the Forests.” MIAW.2/forests. http://www.miaw2.polimi.it/www.miaw2.polimi.it/vision.html (accessed March 12, 2013).
Visiondivision. Interview by author, March 8, 2013.
“Visiondivision: The Patient Gardener.” Designboom: Architecture, entry posted October 24, 2011. http://www.designboom.com/architecture/visiondivision-the-patient-gardener/ (accessed March 12, 2013).