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Making It

An Indoor Forest Of 10,000 Tree Species From All Over The World

This "microcosmos of all the world’s trees" has everything from ginkgo to an extinct species thought to be 390 million years old.

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At the University of Bristol's historic Royal Fort Garden, several blocks of Douglas fir wood in varying heights make up the facade of a new installation commissioned by the nearby life sciences department. Around the side, an entry way a bit smaller than a door leads into a room wide enough for about two people. Making up the walls are pieces of wood from every 10,000 known tree species throughout not only the world, but also all of geological time.

Hollow is the work of artist Katie Paterson, who was commissioned by the university in 2013 to create a public art piece for the life sciences building. For the next three years, she reached out to tree libraries in universities as well as private collectors, asking them to donate wood samples, building on her wishlist of species as she went. By the start of construction a few months ago, she had collected thousands of species from all over the world—from fossils of ancient trees to exotic new species. She tapped German architects Zeller & Moye to incorporate the wood samples into a spatial installation—or as she puts it on her site, a "microcosmos of all the world’s trees."

Architect Christoph Zeller says that his firm collaborated with Paterson from the beginning of the project, changing their design as more and more blocks of wood were flown in from all over the world. Some of the samples are incredibly rare, such as the nearly 5,000 year old methuselah tree from Arizona, thought to be one of the oldest trees in the world. Others were small pieces of petrified wood from extinct species, one of which is thought to be 390 million years. Others still are more common species like ginkgos, banyans, red woods, a Lebanese cedar, and a Phoenix palm.

Originally thinking that they would receive large slabs of wood, the architects envisioned creating a walking path like a walkable timeline, or a structure built only out of the wood provided. "Normally when you plan the design, you plan it, buy material, and that’s it," says Zeller. In this case, they waited for the material to find them, then changed their design to accommodate it.

In the final structure, the outer layer of Douglas fir protects the more rarified wood samples inside from the elements. Because they are encompassed by the larger pieces of wood, the architects didn't oil the wood pieces; people stepping inside the hollowed out space will be enveloped in the smell of wood. The architects kept the ceiling open to natural light, staggering the blocks of wood so the sun filters through. "We wanted to create a notion of a miniature forest canopy where the light comes through the leaves," says Zeller.

Hollow is a permanent installation on the grounds of historic Royal Fort Garden at University of Bristol in England. To learn more, go here.

Photos: Max McClure/courtesy of University of Bristol and Situations

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