Book Review: The Architecture of Trees

The Architecture of Trees / Princeton Architectural Press

The Architecture of Trees was first published by Cesare Leonardi and Franca Stagi, two versatile Italian furniture, landscape, and architectural designers, in 1982. This “scientific tome” and “original ‘labor of love and obsession'” has been re-issued by Princeton Architectural Press in all its arboreal glory.

The book features 212 trees species depicted through 550 intricate quill-pen illustrations, each drawn to 1:100 scale. A handy paper ruler is included to help readers better understand the full breadth of these beauties. Each tree is depicted with and without foilage, showing summer and winter forms. The shape of each tree’s shadows and the hues of their seasonal color are also vividly conveyed.

According to an introduction to the new edition by Andrea Cavani and Guilio Orsini, curators of the Cesare Leonardi archive, Leonardi studied at the University of Florence, which encouraged a “liberal interpretation of the discipline of architecture, an interpretation that abandoned schematic rationalism and instead was open to visual art, design, landscape, graphic design, communications, philosophy, and sociology.”

In Florence, Leonardi interacted with trees he didn’t recognize. “Their sizes and shapes impressed him, and he felt ‘more drawn to them than to architectural forms.'” While creating a landscape design for a new city park in Modena, he realized that “it would be impossible to design a park without a deep understanding of its elements, meaning trees.”

The Architecture of Trees / Princeton Architectural Press

But he found that just reading about trees wouldn’t cut it; he needed to more deeply understand them. In the areas surrounding Florence and Modena, he “studied specimens, photographed them, and took note of their names and dimensions; and, then, with an eye to using them in his plans, he drew the trees in India ink on transparent film, using photographs for guidance and working on a scale of 1:100.”

Tree specimen from The Architecture of Trees / Princeton Architectural Press
Tree specimen from The Architecture of Trees / Princeton Architectural Press

Drawing, Cavani and Orsini argue, enabled Leonardi to isolate the tree from its surroundings, focus on its architectural elements, and clearly depict the features that make a species unique. Over time, Leonardi found that climate, exposure, and soil conditions impacted the growth rate and character of specimens, so he accommodated for those differences, too.

Cavani and Orsini note that The Architecture of Trees wasn’t just a result of tree appreciation, but used to support a series of landscape projects in Italy, including Parco della Resistenza in Modena, swimming pool complexes created in Vignola and Mirandola, and a study for the expansion of the Modena cemetery.

The tree studies were also brought to the design of Parco Amendola in Modena, which opened in 1982. Leonardi and Stagi chose trees based on their “size, shape, shadow, and their changing colors over the course of the year.” A 40-meter (131-foot)-tall sundial tower was designed to “illuminate the center of the park at night with a multiple rotating projector that completed one full turn every hour, creating shadows that morphed continuously.”

Those shade studies are included in the beginning of the book, followed by a color analysis, and the drawings of the trees themselves, which are organized by botanical families, genera, and species. At the end, detailed drawings of tree elements — branches and leaves — are included with relevant notes about how the trees change over their lifespan, their fruit, their smells, and planting notes.

Color analysis from The Architecture of Trees / Princeton Architectural Press

While the publisher honors the original edition’s organization, moving back and forth between the color analysis, drawings, and detailed drawing notes simply using plate numbers and trees’ Latin names can be a chore. It takes some digging to find the English or common names as well.

In the forward, Laura Conti writes that trees are increasingly critical to making cities more humane and resilient to climate change. And urban leaders need to adopt policies and regulations to enhance the quality of green spaces.

But to actually design and build beautiful and functional urban green spaces, landscape architects and designers must first understand the form and nature of trees, which are inherently malleable. “If man is going to ask trees to help him survive in this prison he has constructed, he cannot simply rely on that plasticity, but must acquire information about the characteristics that each tree inherently assumes in an area’s climate.”

“Competent” landscape architects then naturally take into account “a tree’s size and shape, the pattern of branch growth, the look of leaves in different seasons, and the amount of shade it offers.”

These timeless botanical drawings help us see the aesthetic value of trees themselves — complex, living objects that define the quality and character of any designed landscape.

One thought on “Book Review: The Architecture of Trees

  1. thomas 10/11/2019 / 2:22 pm

    Thank you! A fair review to an impressive book.
    Its depth is well composed and the visuals are stunning!!!

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