Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
URBAN SPACES : August 1, 1999
Anyone who has read Swiss Family Robinson will find tree-top houses irresistible. From atop a tree, you could view the landscape like a Maharaja surveying his kingdom from the balcony of his palace. The lullaby of a nightingale coaxes you to sleep and a cuckoo would give a wake-up call.
Modern tree-top houses, which are structurally strong and elaborately decorated to suit contemporary tastes, are decidedly a far cry from the crude arboreal home of author Johann David Wyss' shipwrecked clan. The new versions serve as children's playhouses or adults' cozy retreats with all modern conveniences, including electricity and telephone.
Just like the one designed by tea-and-cardamom planter and amateur architect N. P. Joseph at his farm-cum-resort, Carmelia, at Vandanmedu in Idukki district of Kerala. "If you can't fly with the birds, at least nest with them," Joseph says with a smile.
He remembers the primitive "erumadams" or the "machans" in which he spent several nights during his visits to Idukki in the early Sixties to develop his plantations. "There were no houses then in the vicinity and one protected oneself against the elephants and the tigers, climbing up these elevated platforms."
Four years ago, he designed and built a house, costing Rs. 75,000, atop the oldest tree on his 50-acre farm - a huge Chorakali (Myristica attenuata). It is about 20 feet high and has about 100 sq feet of floor space, which includes a bathroom (having a hidden drain) with tin flooring and aluminium wall panels. Crushed bamboo has been used for panelling the outer walls of the house. The rosewood platform erected on the main stem of the Chorakali is supported by the trunks of four dead trees.
Climb up 18 wooden steps and you reach a balcony that offers a panoramic view of spice gardens, tea plantations and degraded forest. The blue Western ghats are visible through the space between the limbs of the taller trees. The cool, serene air reminds you that you are 4,000 feet above sea level. The silence is broken only by the chirping of birds and the occasional sound of a flute a farm-hand plays.
Tree-top houses have a long history. Right from the Middle Ages, tree arbors had been popular in Europe. During the Italian Renaissance, the Medicis built a marble delight on a tree. A town west of Paris became famous in the mid-19th century for its arboreal restaurants. The likes of Jim Corbett shot tigers from elevated "machans".
"The most important thing in this ingenious branch of architecture is that you shouldn't bark up the wrong tree," Joseph says. "Only trees with large, strongly connected limbs on the lower part of the stem, should be selected for construction."
Joseph chose the Chorakali because it had been famous for its "never-say-die spirit". Even after the tree was cut in half for erecting the platform on which the frame of the house is secured, it did not die. It continues to sprout branches.
And the creaking embrace of the boughs implies an ineffable intimacy with Nature.
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