The Topographic Treehouse
As a UX designer and researcher, in addition to my UX case studies, I also have an “Explorations” page on my website. I use this to share projects and skills I have under my belt that aren’t UX-related or worthy of a full case study on my homepage. That said, some projects definitely do warrant some additional background, and that’s what I want to do with this story!
Pictured above is a piece from the 3D: Form Versus Function course at CCA, taught by Elin Christopherson. The inspiration for this assignment was a map: specifically, a square cutout of a map that covered a 2 mile by 2 mile area of Oakland, California.
The first task was to research the area — to learn it’s history and to walk around and document it’s current state with photos. Next, I was to design a small-scale mock-up of a proposed monument out of wood.
One of the main areas that caught my attention as I explored and observed happenings in the area was a park — Mosswood Park. The park had gorgeous tall trees all throughout, but many of the benches and seating areas around the park were being used by homeless individuals sleeping, and much of the grass was covered by tents. This was in stark contrast to the sleek and shiny buildings under construction directly across the street.
I thought, “My assignment is to design a monument, but what good is a monument for the people who currently reside here? It might look pretty, but it doesn’t help them at all.”
My assignment is to design a monument, but what good is a monument for the people who currently reside here? It might look pretty, but it doesn’t help them at all.
How can my monument be functional? I took inspiration from the trees that dotted the park, as well as from the people spending time at the park. They fell into two groups: (1) individuals who were living there with no other options, and (2) people and families who wanted to spend the day outside and relax. They have competing needs; you can’t lounge on the grass or read a book on the bench when it’s taken up already, but what else is the homeless population to do?
I decided that my “monument” would be a treehouse.
I started with simple sketches from the front and side views. Inspired by topographic maps, I would use thin sheets of wood to stack and layer together to build my mini-treehouse.
I then made a rough mock-up out of cardboard to get a sense for construction and scale. Mostly, it served as a proof of concept that allowed me to solicit feedback from my instructor and my peers.
I created the final wood version using pieces of 1/4" thick wood cut with a table saw, bandsaw, and scroll saw. I took inspiration for the stylized look of the tree from topographic maps, hence the name of the piece.
It was a stressful process, since I have long had a strong fear of knives and blades, yet this project necessitated the use of several types of saws. I remember it took me a while to leave the sketching phase and work up the nerve to start woodworking, but I eventually worked up the nerve to give it a try, and things went better than I could have hoped.
I started by sketching out what I wanted to cut onto my wood boards. I needed to cut out many round-ish pieces to stack to form the tree trunk, as well as many equally sized square pieces to stack into a treehouse. I knew that these didn’t need to be perfect since I could sand them smooth after they were glued together, but the more difficult part for a beginner like me was making the leafy parts of the tree, because these shapes had tight curves and needed to be different sizes, but still look consistent all together, meaning that the curves needed to match up. Things turned out okay, and I managed to sand down some parts that came out rough.
I remember it took me a while to leave the sketching phase and work up the nerve to start woodworking, but I eventually worked up the nerve to give it a try, and things went better than I could have hoped.
For bigger cuts, I used a bandsaw, but there were some things that required more control and detail, and for that I used a scroll saw. For anything with a straight line, I made use of a table saw — which scared me the most, but was actually probably the safest and easiest one to use!
Once I had all my elements glued together, I needed to smooth things out. This was my first time glueing pieces together on a wood project, and it definitely wasn’t perfect — some glue got squished out between layers and was visible. I also didn’t get all of the many stacked pieces of wood perfectly aligned, so things weren’t very smooth and flat.
I had to resort to hand sanding with sand paper for much of it due to the fact that, at the time, a nearby wildfire was raging and had put air quality at a dangerous level, forcing the college to close, leaving me with no access to the belt and disc sander in the woodshop!
I eventually did manage to get into the shop again later, putting the finishing touches on pieces before I glued the house, tree trunk, and leafy parts together. Once they were glued and dried, there were only small details left, like adding a rope ladder and a fence.
Below are a selection of photos showing the finished piece.
I wanted my monument to whimsically explore the ways in which we can think creatively and use existing “infrastructure” (trees, in this case) to solve our most pressing problems. Land is a commodity in the middle of a densely packed city experiencing a worsening housing shortage — what if we just need to look up?
Many of us prefer remain ignorant of complex problems by keeping them “out of sight, out of mind.” Indeed, it’s not uncommon to hear locals complain about the presence of homeless in the park without any real solutions or suggestions of an alternative.
Land is a commodity in the middle of a densely packed city experiencing a worsening housing shortage — what if we just need to look up?
This treehouse “monument” challenges these attitudes and is a tongue-in-cheek response in order to provoke discussion on who is entitled to use public spaces, and for what purposes. The piece was nominated by faculty to be shown in The New Aesthetics Exhibition in Oakland, California’s Oliver Art Gallery.
Originally published at https://www.ainsley.design on February 24, 2022.