Arch. Myriam B. Mahiques Curriculum Vitae

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Trees that Conform Social Space

Trees path in Huntington Beach Central Park. Picture by Myriam B. Mahiques

Dragon Tree. Web download.

Trees have always been part of our lives. At some stage, our primitive ancestors dwelled in the trees that gave them shelter until they evolved into ape-like humans and returned to the ground to build their first huts with trees.

Many sacred trees or pillars formed of the living trunks of trees –called Irmenseule- were found in Germany. Vitruvius, in his De architectura libri decem , had considered the structural framework as a precondition of architectural form. He described the primitive Colchians’ constructions, in Pontus, built in the following manner: "They lay down entire trees flat on the ground to the right and the left, leaving between them a space to suit the length of the trees, and then place above these another pair of trees, resting on the ends of the former and at right angles with them. These four trees enclose the space for the dwelling”. From these primitive structures, according to the Roman architect, the architectural orders developed later. Vitruvius in the first century BC, Alberti in the SXV and Viollet Le Duc in the SXIX, reasoned that the first hut would be a structure of branches against a tree or cliff, before it became a round hut.

Different interpretations of primitive huts, from Vitruvius to Viollet Le Duc

The wonder and mystery of trees is such that they were assigned with magic and symbolism. “The legendary ash tree of Scandinavia, Yggdrasil, forms the basis of Norse mythology; whilst its branches reach into the heavens, the home of the gods, its roots go down to the underworld. The trunk passes through middle Earth, linking the three realms, and forming the bridge along which the gods can pass. In this way the tree can be seen as the greatest symbol of all: a representation of the whole cosmos”. (Brian Clifford January 1999).

The Wacah Chan (or Whac Chan, a.k.a. Mayan Sacred Tree, Mayan World Tree or Mayan Tree of Life) represented the three levels of the Mayan universe. It was believed that all three universes were joined by a central tree. The roots of the tree plunged into the Maya underworld and its branches reached into the Overworld or the Heavens. From

They were worshipped in ancient ceremonies, and were believed to be the house of spirits. In their revering as gods or favorite instruments of gods, many Oriental and Occidental people used them to locate altars and execute sacrifices, under or near them: the tree was then a social element that congregated the community. This conception implied the belief among primitive races that trees were animated. In the Middle East, parts of the trees may be taken as talismans/charms/amulets/medicine because the tree had the divine blessing of the saint ("Barakeh") to whom the tree is dedicated. (Amots Dafni. 2007).
In Sweden, "Court trees" go back a long way in Germanic custom. The name of the ancient town of Malters in Canton Lucerne, may be derived from "mahal-tre," meaning "gathering tree," the tree under which people met to see justice meted out. Another Swiss surprising habit with the village lime trees, was to use them as a “dance hall”; supposedly people harvesting those trees would have tied down their branches to grow them horizontal, and in the course of several decades the branches grew firm enough in that position to support the huge weight of people dancing on them. A chesnut tree in Geneva, has a different public function started informally in 1808 by a private citizen; the “official chesnut” is used to decide when the spring has arrived; it is the task of the secretary general of the city’s State Council to report the appearance of the first leaf in this particular tree.

 Trees in Huntington Beach Central Park. Picture by Myriam Mahiques.

In the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine of 2007, Dr. Amots Dafni published his very interesting research about the symbolisms and uses of trees in Middle East. What follows are the items I selected and adapted from his article.
In some villages of Galilee there are sacred trees which are called "Sajarat el Orsan (the groom's tree) or "Sagarat el Arus (The bride's tree). These names reflect the old custom of performing weddings under these trees to receive blessings from the saint to whom the tree is dedicated and, also, just because it was almost the only large available tree that gave considerable shade. Just before the ceremony at the groom's house he was brought to the sacred trees for final preparations (Zaffa). Mats were spread under the tree and food and sweets were offered to the guests. When people were asked why the ceremony was held under the tree some (Arabs) said that it was to get a blessing, while others (Bedouins) mentioned that the large solitary tree was a good place for gathering under as it offers much shade in the summer and is a good place for horse racing.
The rainmaking ceremony at the village of Kaukab Abu el Heija, in the Western Galilee, was so famous that people from other villages in the region used to take part and each delegation brought its special flags which were assigned for this specific purpose. In other villages rainmaking ceremonies and praying were carried out near sacred trees, they included special songs and prayers (which may have varied from village to village) and sometimes included the sprinkling of water. These ceremonies came to an end over the last three to five decades.
Sulkhas were conciliations between families, especially when serious quarrels or murder were involved. In the village of Arab a' Shibli (in the foothills of Mt Tabor) there is a special tree (Quercus ithabusresis) named Al Mizar (the visits) under which the local judges used to sit regularly until around 1950.

Deep in the ancient woods of Finland, Lea Turto covered tree stumps in red felt as a way to examine the spiritual meaning of the forest and her own deep rooted Finnish culture. From

It seems that the custom of tying rags onto sacred trees exists in almost every known human culture, going beyond the borders of religion, geography and time. Rag tying is largely distributed in the Moslem world, noted that clothes that are left on sacred trees are not just gifts in the ordinary sense; rather, they are channels connecting the worshipper with the object or person worshipped. In the Moslem world, rags, used clothes, yarn and threads are tied, in the shrines or tombs of holy figures (Wellis) and on objects around them such as sacred trees, the wire netting which covers the windows of saints' tombs and fences.
Hammering nails as well as hanging clothes are "tying" rituals, whereby the person seeks healing or a solution to problems by transferring his or her illness or problems to the tree, or to whatever object the clothes are hung on or nails hammered into. Such "tying" is one of the best known and commonest beliefs practiced throughout the world among Christians, as well as among Muslims and their predecessors in the Middle East. In several countries nails are hammered to a sacred tree to transfer the pain or illness into the tree (England, Germany, Kurdistan, and Turkey). In India the emetic nut tree (Strychnos nuxvomica) is considered the prison of all demons. Occasionally such trees can be seen with trunks full of nails as a precaution against demons. If a demon or bad spirit dares to attack a human, the exorcist forces it back into the tree with a nail. In Egypt, nails driven into tree trunks signify the prayers of the believers.
Stones are put in certain places when people died as a token of honour to the deceased (Ireland, Morocco, Israel). This custom is very common today in Europe as well as Israel. In the Muslim world it is common to put a stone on or under sacred tree "when a woman yearns for a child, when a peasant longs for rain, or when he yearns for the restoration to health or his horse or camel"
In Israel, people used to leave money under the tree as well as in saints' graves. Leaving money in graves is a very common custom in the Muslim world as charity for the needy. Money is left on trees when a wish is made as an offering to the supernatural being to ensure the fulfillment of the personal request and for wishes and good luck (Scotland, Ireland, Europe in general).
Judging under trees is known from Biblical times (Judges 3:5). It is reported that, even today, no Hindu or Buddhist shrine is completed without a sacred tree planted nearby. These large trees (pipal and banyan) have become natural assembly points for village meetings, community events, and the dispensing of justice. In central Europe, the most venerable oak in many towns and villages became a site of justice where the magistrate sat when he passed judgment, and those trees were preserved as "justice trees".

Decorating the tree is a habit we still have for Christmas. The Druze sometimes put pictures of their religious leaders on sacred trees as they used to do in their house of prayer (Hilwe) and other sacred places. When they declared a "new" tree as sacred on Mount Carmel they decorated it with such kinds of pictures. The reason given was "hanging pictures brings blessings".
In addition to the great fear of punishment due to harming or making sacrilegious utterances about the trees, there are many gestures which show the deep respect for the trees; these are performed while approaching or visiting the tree such as a ban on defecating or urinating near the tree, swearing, cleaning around the tree.

Caltrans District 7 Building in Los Angeles. The plaza is empty, except for my husband that sat for the occasion. Picture by Myriam Mahiques.

Another picture of Caltrans Building in Los Angeles. The corner and the trees in the sidewalk. You do not want to be walking around in summer... Picture by Myriam B. Mahiques

Given the importance of trees for humanity, with ethnic variations among the different social groups, architects and designers should take them into account as part of the overall design, not as simple “decorations”, but for their social role. Many buildings are designed with no interest to the space around them. Or in any case, a cosmetic approach is used to embellish the building, when landscape is not designed with the building as one single element; in consequence, negative spaces without use, except walking, appear as remaining land. This lack of consideration is also found in the work of great architects, maybe because they are mainly focused on the building as “object”. For example, my experience in the great building of Morphosis, the Headquaters of Caltrans district 7 in Los Angeles, was not ideal. Though the benches in the plaza at the front of the building match the general design, no one was staying there under the bright sun, people was gathering in the plaza across the street, where some occasional vendors offered fruit, vegetables and juice. Even Angelinos preferred to take with them small beach chairs to the park under the trees than to be sitting in the highly intellectualized benches. An this is not that there are no trees in Caltrans building, but they are surrounding it, just to apply for the City normative of planting trees. This kind of resolution is not new. In 1977, Christopher Alexander and co-writers, warned architects with these words:
“The trees that are being planted and transplanted in cities and suburbs today do not satisfy people’s craving for trees. They will never come to provide a sense of beauty and peace because they are being set down and built around without regard for the places they create.
The trees that people love create special social places: places to be in, and pass through, places you can dream about and places you can draw. Trees have the potential to create various kinds of social places: an umbrella –where a single, low- sprawling tree like an oak defines an outdoor room; a pair –where two trees form a gateway; a grove –where several trees cluster together; a square –where they enclose an open space; and an avenue –where a double rows of trees, their crowns touching, line a path or street. It is only when a tree’s potential to form places is realized that the real presence and meaning of the tree is felt.
The trees that are being set down nowadays have nothing of this character –they are in tubs in parking lots and along streets, in specially “landscaped areas” that you can see but cannot get to. They do not form places in any sense of the word –and so they mean nothing to people”. (Excerpt from p.799 A Pattern Language: towns, buildings, construction. By Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein)

Tree in the backyard of a house in Los Angeles. Some wind bells are hanging from its branches. It has been also surrounded by pots and a plaza bench was added to conform a contemplation space. Note that the flooring is different. Picture by Myriam Mahiques, 2007.

Tree in a backyard of a house in Orange County. The branches are the support of the children's swing. The surrounding planter is for the pots and an informal seat. Picture by Myriam Mahiques, 2007.

Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein. A Pattern Language: towns, buildings, construction. Oxford University Press; Later printing edition (1977)
Brian Clifford. Trees, wood and people. January 1999
Trees and society.
Amots Dafni. Rituals, ceremonies and customs related to sacred trees with a special reference to the Middle East. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 2007, 3:28doi:10.1186/1746-4269-3-28
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