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The One Tree Project

Landscape Architecture Studio (spring 2017)

Washington University in St. Louis


Instructor:                 Jesse Vogler

Collaborators:          Robert Birch, Shu Guo, Yuting Ji, Scott Mitchell, Margot Shafran 

Awards:                      ASLA National Award of Excellence, Student Collaboration (2018) 

                                    ASLA St. Louis Chapter Award of Excellence, Student Team Award (2017)

Project blog:   

Research abstract:

Press:                         "Critical Lifting," by Sarah Cowles, Landscape Architecture Magazine, Sept. 2017

The One Tree Project studio was instigated by the then-impending removal of the towering allée of pin oaks at Washington University’s front door. The oaks, planted by hand as seed-grown saplings in the 1930s, were to be felled at the end of the semester, and the site underlaid with a new parking garage. The landscape would be infilled, and the allée typology renewed for another century.

The studio framed around this landscape upheaval asked us to consider the tree within a host of contexts—as part of an ecological collective; as an instrument of human utility; as an individual specimen to be studied from root to crown. Using the tools and techniques of both art and science, we evaluated the materiality and symbology of the tree in relationship to human and tree communities, and to our selves.

Tree B-5, 3D laser scan point cloud


Allée aerial (1922), Courtesy of University Archives

Allée walk-through (2017), 3D laser scan point cloud

Undertaking the use of novel technologies such as 3D laser scanning and tree tomography, we deepened our understanding of the tree through point and cross-section visualizations. Our tree forensics led us beneath the soil to examine root extent, microbial relationships, and rooting behavior. A manual tree corer that we twisted turn by painstakingly-level turn sampled the deep archive of time represented in each tree's record of rings. Our studio blog postings delved into the concepts of tree time, archival space, and material force.


Allée pin oak core samples

    Always at stake was sharing the work with publics—invited and spontaneous—that cohered around our

  tree activities. These assemblies and impromptu performances became a key aspect in our modes of representation. The group's design-build projects of tree enclosures, using the vocabulary of construction exclusion fences, framed the tree as an object worthy of careful attention, and even spectacle.


Root collage (2017), Credit Rob Birch


Tree Enclosure 1.0

Inspired in part by this material study, one of my individual projects was to enter the territory of a tree as a phenomenological landscape: I used an angle grinder to make a hollow in the living material of one of the pin oaks. The operation is grounded in experimental veins of cultural geography and archaeology that use performative landscape practices, specifically those involving movement and feel, to foreground the body in the revelation of the human and nonhuman world. The embodiment of the process bound me to a lived experience of the material chronology of the tree, its otherness/closeness, and the tightly interlocked grains and folds of its matter—haptic exchanges mediated by a tool across time. The finding was a kind of intimacy with a tree. The resultant concavity of its substance yielded a subtly evolving processual artifact, one with sensory gradients of its own, that made its own invitations.

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Tree carving, details

As a kind of denouement before the planned tree felling, the studio orchestrated a reversal by which our tree would be lifted, roots and all, before being laid laterally down the allee. The risk of failure by running out of crane use time was very real: ultimately, the tree was shaken and tugged, then dropped to the ground under the force of its own weight. It was a solemn moment—observed, of course, by a gathered public.


Tree Lifting Day

Throughout the semester, we collaborated on studio initiatives and undertook investigations that were inter-tangled with and supported by the instructor and each other. In our respect for the trees, the undertaking, and each other, the spirit of our highly individuated collective, supported by a generous environment, lives on.

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