The lure of treehouses

If you go down to the woods you'll see an array of arboreal abodes. Charlotte Philby reports

Wednesday 18 March 2009 01:00 GMT

I'm not much of a Star Wars fan, but there was one aspect of George Lucas's vision that left a lasting impression: the Ewok village. Nestled high in the trees of the forest moon of Endor, the Ewoks formed their own private world, safe from the perils of life on land.

The Ewoks aren't the only fictional characters to have made a world for themselves high in the canopies. What better home for Tarzan or Peter Pan? Nowhere encapsulates the spirit of youth – the pursuit of freedom in a world of constraint and responsibilities – like a private retreat among the stars.

According to the American architect and arboreal enthusiast Pete Nelson, "the treehouse possesses a transformative power. It speaks an ancient language, and the message is universal: 'Climb up and be in harmony with nature. Let go of earthbound encumbrances and be free.'" Spellbound by these homes in the sky, Nelson set upon a journey across six continents in search of modern treehouses that raise the stakes in creative design. His findings are compiled in his new book, New Treehouses of the World.

At the start of his journey, in the small town of Crossville, Tennessee, Nelson found a man reaching a higher level in more ways than one. Some 18 years ago, Horace Burgess received "a mission from God". "A vision of an enormous treehouse church presented itself to him," explains Nelson, "with almost every imaginable detail intact." Since then, Burgess has spent 15 years creating a hand-built cathedral that now stands almost 100 feet high.

Burgess scavenged wood to create an intricate, eight-level structure enveloping the remnants of an old white oak tree in his grounds. The pulpit stands before a large wooden cross, embedded in solid internal beams. This area, at the summit, is accessed by a great spiral staircase, tunnelling up and around the oak. Bells fashioned from old acetylene bottles hang from wire in a belfry that stands 97 feet high, while an enormous corrugated-plastic skylight illuminates the nave.

When not in service, the church doubles up as a basketball court: a hoop is fixed on the main wall above where the local congregation otherwise gathers. Burgess's exquisite creation has since become the heart of Crossville, and he is not the only one lifting the spirits of his community through the power of the treehouse. Far across the Atlantic, in a deprived neighbourhood in Tangier, Newman discovered a charity established with the help of Roderick Romero, an American spiritualist, former musician and treehouse designer.

He and his partner, Anisa Romero, an artist, have raised the stakes with their innovative treehouse design. Their opulent creations have graced the pages of Vogue and The New York Times, but the real reward for them is harnessing the "tranquillity and natural splendour" of the treehouse, to bring happiness and hope to deprived neighbourhoods across the world. In Tangier, Romero helped initiate a captivating outlet for local children.

The Tangier Treehouse Project taught youngsters carpentry skills by helping them build a boat-shaped structure in the branches of a giant ficus tree. The boat symbolised "the kids' hope for the future, and a better life", says Nelson. And the treehouse was the perfect medium for this. In his book, Nelson reflects on the restorative power of a place "surrounded by the raw energy of nature, where the soul is inevitably rejuvenated and the spirit lifted". But he talks about more tangible benefits, too.

In a world where natural resources are diminishing, and the impact of global warming places the need for sustainable development high on the international agenda, Newman argues that environmentally friendly treehouse tourist resorts, as seen in Thailand, India and Japan, are proof that the future of property development really is up in the air. Whether or not this sort of high-rise building could ever replace the growing sprawl of concrete tower blocks that permeate Britain is debatable, but there are a number of people in the UK embracing their childhood fantasies.

Jenny and Richard Grindon have fulfilled a lifelong ambition in the grounds of their family home in Haslemere, Surrey. "Our neighbours had one first, and friends of all ages arrive with tents and sleeping bags," explains Jenny, who has three children between the ages of two and 10. "Some camp in the garden, while the lucky ones get to sleep in the treehouse." It was too glorious an idea not to emulate, and the Grindons had their own built in October last year.

"We live in a woodland and it called for a treehouse," she continues. They enlisted the skills of Tree House Life, which offers everything from basic children's playhouses from around £3,500 to palatial affairs complete with hot tubs, which, unsurprisingly, do not come cheap. The Grindons chose something in the middle. "We wanted ours to blend in with the land," says Jenny. "It has a number of platforms and runlets, set around an old oak tree. There is a zip rope, a rope bridge, a swing, a slide and a great wall of climbing net." It's the ideal space for good, old-fashioned family fun.

"Because we live on a slope, there was little scope before for our children to play games outside before," she continues. "But now, every day when the kids come home, we go outside and play battles across the fortress. You have to be a big kid to think of something like this, but who doesn't have an inner child just waiting to be released?"

'New Treehouses of the World' by Pete Nelson (£19.99), is published by Abrams and is out in May

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