Julia Morison - Tree Houses for Swamp Dwellers

Julia Morison - Tree Houses for Swamp Dwellers add

"Small, secretive, with panoramic views" - such would read a real estate advertisement for a well-conceived suburban tree house. But in responding to Christchurch's depleted cityscape, artist Julia Morison's 'Tree Houses For Swamp Dwellers' conveys an intriguing sense of possibility in a city poised between an earthquake shattered past and a paper future.

Stationed, for now at least, on a central city street as part of the Scape biennial of public art, Tree Houses for Swamp Dwellers comprises ten modular hollow "trees", timber-framed Dalek-shaped structures on hexagonal concrete plinths each topped with a steel planter of muehlenbeckia complexa (pohuehue) vines climbing up a shock of illuminated fibreglass rods eventually forming a canopy of multi-hued greenery. The result is whimsical and playful, yet strongly rooted in the pre-European landscape of ancient wetlands where forest species such as totara and kahikatea once flourished, a swampy terrain that exerted its nature so brutally in 2010 and 2011. "We all had to deal with this," says Morison. "The earthquakes, the liquefaction - you can't forget the geography of the place."

In contrast to the devastation and uncertainty that ripped through the city, Morison's "tree houses" provide a beguiling sense of refuge, physical shelter from the rain and winds but also small portals to imagined worlds.

"I think of them as private spaces, like those childhood spaces, those small huts we used to create, but in a public space that anyone can occupy. Recently I went on a cruise around the (Pacific) Islands and we got off on this tiny unpopulated island covered with huge trees with aerial roots coming down, so you had these little rooms, private spaces where you could read your book. I wanted to use that idea. I wanted the nostalgia associated with those private spaces where you have that freedom to imagine."

Funded by the Todd Foundation, the Christchurch City Council and Creative New Zealand, with construction sponsored by Hawkins Construction, Tree Houses for Swamp Dwellers will remain as a permanent, re-locatable (and reconfigurable) work in the city, a place for play and reflection, a plinth for poetry readers or buskers, an ongoing reminder of the sense of possibility implicit in a city busy re-inventing itself.

"People say, 'What will Christchurch become? But Christchurch is what it is. If you look at what is going on, if you engage with it, it is an extremely exciting place to be living."

She points to the view from the busy inner city café where a flower garden has been transformed into a vegetable plot, the battered façade of the McKenzie and Willis building leans into a brace of scaffolding, newly exposed walls serve as a canvas to street art. Transitional activities like Scape, Gapfiller, FESTA and Life in Vacant Spaces are bringing new ideas, new life and energy into the decimated CBD.

"These things are making an impact already. You sow the seed of an idea - it gets infectious. This is what brings people into the city - and not just tourists, but locals. "And artists' involvement", she says, "will reduce the risk of mediocrity in the city's public spaces. "I would really like artists to be involved in more of the ground-up processes. Often the only opportunities we are given are a brooch effect or to remedy architectural (mistakes). But Christchurch could really capitalise on all this experimentation, the workshops, and the theorisation as a potential resource for the city. These things may or may not work but they encourage those discussions. It is not the finishing of the project that is interesting, it is the process, that malleable dynamic process of what if."

This article was first published in Defign Magazine.

Words by Sally Blundell Photography by Scape Public Art