What is Arbosculpture?

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  • Written By: Michael Anissimov
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 13 November 2019
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Arbosculpture is a rich and centuries-old art form where trees are slowly bent and grafted into beautiful and functional shapes such as weaves, bridges, chairs, hammocks, even full houses. Arbosculpture is meant to demonstrate the degree of harmony we can experience with nature, shaping it carefully as it grows rather than chopping it down and eliminating all semblance of its original form. Images of arbosculpture appear in artwork from as early as 1516.

Anyone can be an arbosculptor - all it takes are a few simple garden tools - a grafting knife, pruning sheers, stretch tape, a shovel, and a young and flexible tree to work with. Poplar, apple, birch, willow, cherry, ash, and the red alder trees are all appropriate for forming into an arbosculpture. For beginner arbosculptors, simple arches, weaves, tool-holders, and fences are all good projects. For the advanced, anything is possible! Gazebos, boats, ladders, classrooms, large archways, gates, anything. Trees can even be coaxed into holding stained glass.

Axel Erlandson is the most famous person to practice the art of arbosculpture. The son of Swedish immigrants, he was a former in central California, and later moved to the area between San Jose and Santa Cruz. He spent many years there crafting fantastic abstract and functional shapes out of growing trees, and in the spring of 1947 opened a "tree circus" that attracted tourists worldwide. Erlandson spent 40 years creating arbosculpture, and died in 1964. His tree circus still stands today.


Early 20th century artwork from Germany depict entire barns made out of carefully tended trees. More recently, Mitchell Joachim, a member of the MIT Media Lab's Smart Cities Group, with architect Javier Arbona and ecological engineer Lara Greden, have revived the "living house" arbosculpture idea, creating CG mock-ups and working out the details of how a house made of nothing but trees could brave the elements and stay intact for hundreds of years with little maintenance. Not only would such a house have zero environmental footprint, it would actually have a net positive effect by removing excess carbon dioxide from the air and producing fresh oxygen. Arbosculpture, if it catches on, could very well be an important component of a greener future.


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