10 Examples From History to Today of Tree Inspired Architecture

Trees have been a common point of reference for architects throughout history, offering many lessons and solutions from matters of structure to spatial organisation and air cleansing. Here are 10 examples of architecture that has been inspired by trees:

1. The Parthenon, Athens, Greece – Year 432 BC


The Parthenon stands atop the Athenian Acropolis with the 46 Doric columns of its exterior gathering to form one of the most recognisable compositions in the history of architecture. While scholars and academics have debated the proportions and meanings of this Ancient Greek icon, the role of the humble tree is often left out of the story of the Parthenon’s origins. It is said the expressive use of columns is the result of an ambition to create the appearance of a grove of trees perched above the city. The relationship between Ancient Greek architecture and trees didn’t stop here. The relatively austere Doric order in which the Parthenon was built was followed by the Ionic and Corinthian orders with the latter borrowing the leaves of the Acanthus tree for ornament. From this point onwards architects have never looked back and tree has stood firm as a trusted architect’s companion.

2. Cordoba Mosque, Cordoba, Spain – Year 987

Cordoba Mosque

Ask anybody who’s ever visited the magnificent Cordoba Mosque to describe the building and you can be sure to hear that it’s “a forest of columns”. And a forest indeed it is, with 856 stone columns recycled from the former Roman temple it replaced mimicking not just the structure of trees, but also the spatial and atmospheric qualities of dense mysterious woodlands. The similarities with natural landscapes continue beyond the use of columns with the dappled light entering the space through the abstracted patterns of the window shades.

3. Korowai Tribe, Papua, Indonesia

korowai tree house

This ancient tribe only made contact with folk from the Western world in the 1970s and have since captured many an imagination with their unique approach to house building. The tree houses of the Korowai people are truly works of architectural fantasy nestled in among the canopy the Indonesian Jungle, sometimes up to a leg trembling 35 metres above ground. There is method in this magical madness. Being high above the ground protects the houses and their inhabitants from mosquitos, evil spirits and perky neighbours. Three things we’d all do well to avoid.

4. Skogskapelet Woodland Chapel, Stockholm, Sweden, Gunnar Asplund – Year 1920

Woodland Chapel

In 1920 Swedish architect Erik Gunnar Asplund completed the Skogskapelet Woodland Chapel. Much in tune with its function, the architecture uses columns and canopy to create a gentle transition from its surrounding landscape of evergreen trees to the calm interior of the chapel.

5. Villa Mairea, Noormarkku, Finland, Alvar Aalto – Year 1939

Villa Mairea

Considered by many to be Aalto’s finest work, Villa Mairea makes no secrets of taking inspiration directly from the surrounding woodland. Alvar Aalto managed to pull the intimacy, colour and materiality of the forest straight into a domestic setting with a sensitive composition of verticals, horizontals and curves. The journey through the house from one space to the next has the feel of a stroll through the woods with columns bound together with wooden wraps inviting the touch, or even a hug, and the low Scandinavian sun cutting between the timber batons that define the entrance porch and staircase. Aalto’s interpretation of the tree and the forest is holistic and restrained, heavily referencing the nature without surrendering control of the architecture.

6. Stansted Airport, London, UK, Norman Foster – Year 1991


Norman Foster’s Stansted Airport was a game-changer in Airport design. Foster took it upon himself to declutter the airport terminal and let’s face it, somebody had to. By turning to a tree inspired design passengers are, or at least should be, able to enjoy a light expansive space beneath the roof canopy while the masses of services required to make an airport work are nestled beneath in the roots of the structure.

7. House NA, Tokyo, Japan, Sou Fujimoto – Year 2010


House NA by Sou Fujimoto is one of the whackiest houses in Japan, and that’s saying something. The first time you see this block of stacked boxes it can be hard to know exactly what it is you’re looking at. A staircase? A big shelf? A Damien Hirst sculpture? No, it’s a house, and can you guess what inspired this mesmerising design? You got it; trees! More specifically the trees of Fujimoto’s home island of Hokkaido where the architects claims one can always find a comfortable place among the trees. It’s this quality that the Tokyo based architect took to the extreme in creating a series of ambiguous spaces without any prescribed function, allowing the ’Nomadic’ owners to live in the house as if it were a landscape ripe for exploration.

8. House for Trees, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Vo Trong Nghia – Year 2014

House for Trees

A house or oversized plant pots? Both, actually. Architect Vo Trong Nhgia is passionate about bringing greenery into Ho Chi Minh City and does so in often fun and playful ways. House for Trees is but one of a number of tree and plant inspired projects by Vo Trong Nghia and has an air of a fairytale village about it, but there are also real functional drivers behind the design. The ‘plant pot’ roof tops absorb pollution and retain rainfall, helping to cleanse the air and prevent water flooding, as well as providing a beautiful place to relax.

9. Kanagawa Institue of Technology, Kanagawa, Japan, Junya Ishigami – Year 2007

Kanagawa IT

Junya Ishigami’s university studio and workspace could be seen as the Cordoba Mosque’s contemporary sister with its own take on the forest of columns. 305 steel columns, all completely unique in their form are scattered irregularly around the parallelogram plan to create enclosures of different sizes without the use of walls. The interior is one space and many spaces at the same time.

10. 2017 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, London, UK, Francis Kere – Year 2017

Serpentine Pavilion

This year’s eye catching Serpentine Gallery Pavilion designed by Berlin based architect Francis Kere takes inspiration from the trees of his home country of Burkina Faso. The shade provided by trees means they become the centre of village activity, playing host to all kinds of functions from kindergarten to social club to hospital, and this sense of shared space that the tree offers is what Kere translates into his pavilion design. The climate in London is somewhat different to that of Burkina Faso meaning the canopy of the pavilion is more often a shelter from rain than it is from the sun, but nonetheless the power of the tree to inspire architecture shines through as strongly as it did in Ancient Greece.

Words: Sam Eadington founder Estudio ESSE


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