Uniting Sacred and Secular: Two Green Cathedrals of Europe

Cathedral construction was a major engine of medieval Europe. Does a new approach to this historical architecture hold new possibilities?

Giuliano Mauri, La Cattedrale Vegetale, Bergamo, Italy

Giuliano Mauri, La Cattedrale Vegetale, Bergamo, Italy

A few minutes ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship. But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease. Every hidden cell is throbbing with music and life, every fiber thrilling like harp strings, while incense is ever flowing from the balsam bells and leaves. No wonder the hills and groves were God’s first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches, the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord himself.

John Muir

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The Cattedrale Vegetale, or Cathedral of Vegetation, stands at the foot of Mount Arera, near the Italian city of Bergamo. Designed by land artist Giuliano Mauri and completed by his son after the master’s death in 2009, the structure is composed of 42 beech trees. For now, the young trees are supported by columns constructed from fir trunks and chestnut and hazelnut branches. This frame is slowly rotting away as the trees grow. Much like the vaulted stone ceilings of a medieval cathedral, a canopy is slowly forming as the treetops bow toward one another. Five aisles lie between the rows of beech, which are staggered in height.

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The Cathedral of Vegetation serves as a memorial to the work of an artist who created things that were usually short lived and subject to decay. Like any cathedral, it stands as a testament to its builder and his devotion, but this one enlists the aid of nature rather than merely subjugating and copying it. It returns to nature as a place close to creative energy and God. Mauri chose to allow people to share that energy by making the cathedral a place open to the community and visitors for worship, prayer and meditation.

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Over 90 feet long and almost 80 feet wide, the grove of trees will reach into the skies for many seasons and years to come.

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Very different from the old city of Bergamo, the master planned city of Almere is the newest city in the Netherlands, sitting on a tract of land reclaimed from Lake IJsselmeer between 1959 and 1968. This piece of land is referred to as a polder, a low lying area surrounded by manually operated dikes. In 1976, the first house was completed. The community was looking for an artistic concept that would make Almere unique. Marinus Boezem created De Groene Kathedraal, or The Green Cathedral.

De Groene Kathedraal

De Groene Kathedraal

Boezem will tell you that his Green Cathedral has nothing to do with religion and that viewing it in such a fashion is one-sided. That being said, it can hardly be separated from echoes of medieval Christianity. You can read more about his vision in this fascinating interview from the Museum de Paviljoens in Almere.

Reims Cathedral

Reims Cathedral

Rheims Floorplan with aerial view of De Groene Kathedraal

Rheims Floorplan with aerial view of De Groene Cathedral

The structure is made of 178 Italian Poplars planted in a design that mimics the architecture of Reims Cathedral in France, open to the sky rather than enclosed with a stone vault. Whereas the original design was inspired by tree trunks and natural structures, Boezem’s creation seeks to return that stone design to nature. Boezem took hold of the cathedral as a logo, the starting point of the new city. The image has roots in both sacred and secular space. Like Mauri’s structure, people of various faiths and walks of life do come to the cathedral to pray, meditate and worship, but that wasn’t the reason Boezem built it.

Medieval cities cultivated cathedrals not only as places of worship, but as community projects that brought people together to work for a common goal, providing employment and fellowship. It took time to build one, sometimes centuries, and being a part of the process was to be part of something bigger than yourself. Today, there aren’t many things that take so much time and attention. The Green Cathedral may not take centuries to finish, but the poplars do mature over decades. It is estimated that the trees will reach their peak this year, reaching the height of thirty meters, just shy of 100 feet, after which they will begin to die. Italian Poplars are short lived trees, and barring the planting of new ones, this cathedral will begin to decay in little more than thirty years from its original planting.

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In the forest nearby, you will see a second cathedral, this one a negative space made by the deliberate lack of trees, looking startlingly similar to a large keyhole. This structure will remain much longer, as if to do homage to the symbol of the cathedral and the open space it creates for the future. It may also be interpreted as the continuing influence of Christianity, an impression left on modern culture and on the hearts and minds of humans.

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What strike me about Boezem and Mauri’s cathedrals are the permeability and sustainability of their structures. Modern man and modern religion suffer from a rigidity and adherence to habit which threatens the world around us and the core of life itself. We can choose a different way. We can make space and embrace possibility.

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The Earth’s health is the only standard that is all-encompassing enough to overcome the ethnic, cultural, religious, and national tensions that are rending the world asunder. Only the Earth can become the central axis around which which world peace can be spun, for no religion is more compelling, no single nation larger, and no peoples older than the Earth itself. For that to happen, the collective human consciousness must expand enough so that our highest identification is as Earth-Humans.

―Ilchi Lee, Magos Dream: Meeting with the Soul of the Earth
All photos are used in accordance with Fair Use Policy for educational purposes.

Mindfulness Meets Playfulness: A Gallery of Faerie Houses

As we age, the pressure to settle down and turn serious builds. Doesn’t play keep us healthy and encourage awareness?

A faerie house is a miniature structure crafted and/or placed outdoors to shelter real or imaginary creatures. An old stump or a hole in a tree can provide an ideal place for a tiny person to take up residence. This is a traditional craft along the Atlantic seacoast of Maine, where these houses are often made from sustainable, natural materials, including shells, seeds, leaves, rocks, bark and feathers. In the spirit of mindfulness, care is often taken to use things that are already dead and fallen or that won’t be harmed by being part of the faerie house.The structure should be friendly to spiritual and animal occupants, not merely eye candy for human beings. Some designs do incorporate broken pottery, recycled bottles and various man made materials. If you are interested, you can buy a kit or a pre-fab model online, but the experience is so much richer if you collect your own materials and design your own architecture. This is also a great way to learn about your environment and pick up some design, landscaping and construction skills.

Pixie Hollow Fairy House © Jeff Christiansen

Pixie Hollow Fairy House
© Jeff Christiansen

Here are some enchanting creations made by garden designers and artists. If you would like to see more of their work, please click on the links to investigate further.

Garden Walk, Garden Talk
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“Nestled among the calamintha nepeta, fairies will always be minty fresh… maple leaf interior floors and an elegant maple bark exterior entry. Another impeccably designed two-story with a very high presence. The pear-leaf flag waves at the roof top peak to signal the call to fairy frivolity within.” 
© DonnaGWGT

An experienced Master Gardener and architect in Niagara Falls, Donna has a wonderful blog at Garden Walk, Garden Talk that shares the beauty of the gardens and scenery near her home. These fairy houses that she built for a client truly show off her love of the environment and her architecture background. Please take time to see the full post here— it’s delightful, written as an ad for the discerning fairy– and read more on her amazing blog. Lovely humor adds to the whimsy and charm of these elegant little houses.

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“For rent: Dreamy cottage in a very picturesque spot amongst the wandering pink phlox. This beauty sports a high ceiling front parlor with a Swiss Chalet feel. It sits nestled among a flower garden on a huge oak leaf, and as any cosmopolitan fairy knows, oaks are safe havens for a wide variety of fairies.”
© DonnaGWGT

 Applied Imagination

Founded by Paul Busse in 1991, Applied Imagination, Ltd, makes railroad displays for outdoor gardens using natural materials. Their award-winning work has been seen all over the country, notably at New York Botanical Garden, United States Botanic Garden in Washington D.C., Chicago Botanic Garden, Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania, Atlanta Botanic Garden, New Orleans Botanical Garden, Bellagio Conservatory in Las Vegas, and The State Fair of Texas. Paul, who lives in Kentucky, struggles with Parkinson’s Disease and is now retired, but remains involved in the creative process. This piece from the New York Times will tell you much more about him. His love for trains and gardens and his background in landscape design have shaped a vibrant and innovative company. The craftsmanship is spectacular.

Fairy Picnic Gazebo

Fairy Picnic Gazebo
© Applied Imagination, Ltd

Applied Imagination’s fantastic creations include ostentatious palaces and simple designs. Fairy houses are only a small part of their output, which includes architectural models of famous structures, such as the Hagia Sophia and the Great Wall of China, as well as fairy tale locales like Rapunzel’s Tower and the Straw House from the Three Little Pigs. Long live imagination!!

 Sally J. Smith
Autumn Fairy House © Sally J. Smith

Autumn Fairy House
© Sally J. Smith

When it comes to creating magic, Sally J. Smith is a monumental talent. Sally began as a watercolor painter, which perhaps contributes to the light touch and ethereal qualities of her creations. In 2007 she began a new chapter in her artistic journey, the creation of environmental art. Since then, her Faerie Houses and Eartherials–sculptures that combine earthy qualities with otherworldly ones– have inspired quite an audience. She makes her home in the Adirondacks of upstate New York, near Lake Champlain.

Forest Mossy Palace © Sally J. Smith

Forest Mossy Palace
© Sally J. Smith

Bellflower House  © Sally J. Smith

Bellflower House
© Sally J. Smith

Sally creates beautiful and thoughtful work that is completely at home in its environment. If you can’t see it in person, she has a delightful set of calendars and cards available on her website, Greenspirit Arts. It is terrific showcase of her work.

Emerald Moss House © Sally J. Smith

Emerald Moss House
© Sally J. Smith

Brookwater Tea House © Sally J. Smith

Brookwater Tea House
© Sally J. Smith

You don’t have to believe in faeries to enjoy the process or to enjoy looking at these delightful and frequently whimsical designs. Like many other arts, building faerie houses gives us the chance to contemplate things that we might never think about. Anything that enlarges our awareness and understanding of our planet and the creatures who share it with us is valuable.

Western society tells us that faeries are kid stuff and should be put away by grown-ups, like cartoons and stuffed animals. Thankfully, some of those rules are loosening, but you are still going to get funny looks in many circles if you cart your teddy bear to work or sport a My Little Pony lunchbox. We seem to think that people who retain or pursue such childhood connections lack the maturity to make practical decisions. I wonder if the reason we make poor decisions, such as basing our economies on technologies that poison the planet, comes from putting people in charge who lack imagination and the ability to play well with others. What harm can be done by cultivating enchantment?

I’m planning on creating some faerie houses in my yard this spring. How about you?

Images are used in accordance with Fair Use Policies for educational purposes.

Water from the Air: The Miracles of Warka Water

Billions of people lack access to clean water and adequate sanitation. Is there anything creative people can do to help?

Girls in Tigray, Ethiopia © Rod Waddington with CCLicense

Girls in Tigray, Ethiopia
© Rod Waddington with CCLicense

The picturesque and rugged high plateau region of northeast Ethiopia is a difficult land to settle. Most rivers in the north of the country flow west, finding themselves part of the Nile, while the few streams flowing through the northeast often dry up in the summer months. Villages here send their women and children to find and carry home water from shallow, unprotected ponds. These people walk for miles to procure scanty water that is frequently contaminated by animal and human waste, parasites and disease, knowing that their success or failure is the life or death of their family and community. It’s a heavy burden, physically and emotionally, and leaves little to no room for realizing individual potential or creative endeavors. The struggle for survival is everything.

An international team of architects, artists, sociologists, filmmakers and designers called Architecture and Vision, based in Italy, has come together with a plan to help harvest water from the air, freeing women and children for new pursuits and making the future of these communities more secure. The project is called “Warka Water”, named after a giant species of Ficus tree that provides gathering spaces for villages in the region. People meet under the Warka to learn, to make decisions, to share and to celebrate civic and religious events. The Warka is a symbol of village life, and this symbol itself is in danger. Ethiopia has lost 60% of its woodlands over the last 40 years.

By studying desert animals and plants the team has identified shapes, surfaces, materials and coatings that will help condense water from the air. The natural water collecting systems of cacti, the properties of spider webs, beetle shells and lotus flowers have come together with the structure of termite hives, as well as local architecture and basket weaving to produce the Warka Tower, a sustainable and relatively inexpensive means of collecting water.

Warka 1 on exhibition © Domenico with CCLicense

Warka 1 on exhibition in Venice, Italy
© Domenico with CCLicense

The tower consists of a bamboo exoskeleton for support, a mesh textile that collects moisture and a water tank for storage. The newest version, Warka 3.1, also includes a canopy around the structure that provides shade and shelter from wind, increasing stability and humidity. Rotating mirrors have been added on thin, flexible antennae on top of the structure. Aesthetically, these reflect sunlight and moonlight and dance in the wind. Functionally, the mirrors discourage birds from flocking to the tower, where they would foul and drink the water produced there.

Warka 3.1, made principally of bamboo, hemp and bio-plastic, is projected to cost near $1,000 American dollars per tower and is designed to be built with simple tools by a team of four or five people. It is easily maintained without advanced and expensive machinery and leaves little to no footprint on the planet. Lovely, culturally relevant and useful, a single Warka Tower can provide up to 100 liters (over 26 gallons) per day. The structure weighs 60 kg (over 132 lbs) and is 10 m (over 32 feet) tall. You can read more about the design here.

It is inspiring to see what can happen when people pool their creativity together to benefit the community. Is there anything you can do where you are?

A Dream of Willow: Tom Hare’s Seed Walk

Any creation is subject to the strengths and weakness of its parts. What does this tell us about our world?

Sycamore seed, Tom Hare, 2009 © Andrew-M-Whitman with CCLicense

Sycamore seed, Tom Hare, 2009
© Andrew-M-Whitman used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

English artist Tom Hare weaves willow stems, or withies, together to form beautiful and impressive sculptures. He began by making baskets, then moved on to larger and more varied forms. Willow is extremely versatile and renewable, growing easily from severed branches and often coppiced for weaving purposes. Coppicing involves the cutting back of the plant to a stump or short trunk and subsequent harvesting of the juvenile branches as they grow back.

Coppiced willow in northern France @ lamiot with CCLicense

Coppiced willow in northern France
@ lamiot with CCLicense

Once you have learned how to take advantage of its natural qualities and not twist it where it does not want to go, willow will do amazing things for you. Hare is a master of this cooperative process, which bears a distinctly meditative quality. Like any creative endeavor, translating what is in the mind into physical reality yields surprising results. Design must be altered to accommodate the limits and demands of the material. Too much pressure applied in the wrong direction and the twigs will snap. Creation is not governed by the will of the creator alone, but by the participation of the medium in which it is wrought. Some creations come out far better than imagined because the material responds well, while others take multiple attempts to even approach the original vision. The seed is a rich metaphor for this complex relationship between imagination and reality.

Lotus seedpod image © Andrew_M_Whitman with CCLicense

Lotus seedpod detail
image © Andrew_M_Whitman in accordance with Fair Use Policy

These seed pod sculptures were made for the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in 2009, and are quite spectacular, taking the minuscule and blowing it up to enormous proportions for our wonder and enjoyment. They were commissioned to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the garden and the Millienium Seed Bank’s collection of 10% of the world’s wild plant species. Hare was in residence during the time the sculptures were built, and speaks of “weaving with frozen sticks, digging narrow 1.5 meter deep holes, [and] sleeping in the back of the van.” What a delightful result!

Star Anise seed pods © Kew on Flickr with CCLicense

Star Anise seed pods
© Kew on Flickr in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Star Anise alternate view © Jim Linwood with CCLicense

Star Anise alternate view
© Jim Linwood with CCLicense

Poppy seed pods © Jim Linwood with CCLicense

Poppy seed pods
© Jim Linwood with CCLicense

Poppies up close © Kew on Flickr with CCLicense

Poppies up close
© Kew on Flickr in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Horse Chestnut Conker © Kew on Flickr with CCLicense

Horse Chestnut Conker
© Kew on Flickr in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Horse Chestnut Conker, up close © Andrew_M_Whitman with CCLicense

Horse Chestnut Conker, up close
© Andrew_M_Whitman in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Banksia seed © Jim Linwood with CCLicense

Banksia seed
© Jim Linwood with CCLicense

© Kew on Flickr with CCLicense

© Kew on Flickr in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Devil's Claw seed pod  © Kew on Flickr with CCLicense

Devil’s Claw seed pod
© Kew on Flickr in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Hare is also a teacher of basketry, furniture making and contemporary willow work. He’s all about connecting with others and sharing the wonders of creativity. Such a generous artist is certainly much to be admired and appreciated. Please take some time to check out his lovely website.

For those who are interested in the meditative aspects of willow weaving, take a look at synkroniciti’post on basket maker Lise Bech.