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‘Tree Urchin’ is grounded in design

The architecture design project grew from model to large-scale contemplation space in front of the Anderson Collection.
Wooden sculpture installation among large trees.
The student-built structure sits among the oak grove in front of the Anderson Collection. | Adam Rouse

The culminating project for the design-build seminar Responsive Structures is a 23-foot-high outdoor contemplation space installed in front of the Anderson Collection. Made of wood salvaged from a California wildfire, the structure is a testament to harmonious coexistence and the transformative power of design. Uni-no-Ki, or Tree Urchin, is open to the public through May 31, and small-scale process models built by students are on display in the museum lobby.

The temporary structure was created by students taking CEE32H: Responsive Structures, led by Beverly Choe, lecturer in the Architectural Design Program in the School of Engineering, and Jun Sato, visiting associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. The seminar, taught every other year, uses structural design to generate innovative spaces and forms. Students explore how to “grow” a structural system into a large-scale assemblage that responds to a site’s specificities.

“Engineering is often overlooked as a generative force in creative practice, but we try to mine its potential in this seminar,” said Choe. “Forms emerge from optimized structures, which then take on unique spatial and experiential qualities.”

Detail of salvaged oak.
Detail of the salvaged oak used to construct Tree Urchin. | Adam Rouse

This year, students built fanlike modules out of slender sticks up to 15 feet long. They combined about 60 of these fans into larger structural units, forming a spiraling wall, enclosing a contemplation space with a fanlike bench.

In a joint statement about the structure, the students write, “Uni-no-Ki, or Tree Urchin in English, is a convergence of nature and innovation; it is an ode to the symbiotic relationship between human creativity and the environment.” The students add that they were inspired by the steadfast yet mystical presence of trees and the intricacy of Japanese joinery.

Choe and Sato were delighted that Jason Linetzky, the director of the Anderson Collection, once again encouraged students to use the museum’s outdoor space for an experimental build. The grove of oak trees in front of the museum formed a poetic link to the wood sticks milled from reclaimed oak trees that died during the 2015 Middletown Fire in Sonoma County, California. The instructors valued the wood’s source and history in promoting sustainable material practices.

Mark Shunney, the Anderson Collection exhibition designer and museum preparator, who lent support and site facilitation for recent seminar builds at the museum, was particularly struck by the profound connection between the trees outside the museum and the students’ material concept based on harvested dimensional oak lumber. “We hadn’t seen this ambitious scale in the past, and the materials inspired the students to take it to a whole different level,” he said. “I feel the superstructure connects us back to the nature we are surrounded by at Stanford and has engineered an implied volume that makes us think about our place in this landscape, be it the handwork of the joinery or the extended reach of the dimensional lumber to the oak leaves.”

Undoubtedly, the work is an example of creative collaboration between thoughtful students, faculty, and arts colleagues.

Discover more in the Stanford Report

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