Tree houses born from the same elevated ideas about architecture

Both these houses hover above the ground and both embody a kind of visionary architecture which is valuable more for the images and dreams it provokes than for the practical accommodation of everyday life. In other words, they are both rather ridiculous yet still utterly compelling – and hugely influential. Despite these similarities (they are both, after a manner, tree houses), they approach architecture from opposite ends of the spectrum – visionary sci-fi modernism; and dreamlike, surreal and unsettling picturesque.

The first of the houses, the oddly-named Chemosphere, was designed by John Lautner (1911-94) in 1960 in the Hollywood Hills, California, just off Mulholland Drive. A glazed octagon perched on top of a concrete pole, it is one of the most striking and futuristic houses of the modern era, still revelling in a sci-fi aesthetic which oddly does not seem to have dated at all.

Lautner reputedly detested Los Angeles, despite building his best work there, including the defunct Googie’s coffee shop on Sunset Boulevard. In its elevation above the city, the Chemosphere exemplifies a kind of cold-war angst, an idea that the earth might somehow contaminate a home and that the future lay in something more like spaceships or space stations. It is an idea of escape encapsulated in disembodied perfect forms or capsules looking down on the earth from above.

Architect Terunobu Fujimori inside the house

But at the same time it also represents the optimism of an era in which architects, tired of suburban clichés and the by-then tainted minimalism of mainstream modernism, were searching for new languages in which to express the form of a house. In this (as well as in the geometry), Lautner echoes the efforts of his one-time mentor Frank Lloyd Wright, for whom he worked in the 1930s. This is an intensely individualistic architecture, a family home surveying the city below, seemingly apart from its landscape and deliberately isolated in the air. In fact, its form is actually a response to the steep slope of the site, it is a very practical solution and its structural invention has ensured it has survived earthquakes which have severely damaged other more conventional houses around it.

The tree house is a room for one

It is reached by a strange little funicular and entered from the rear. The house itself is bisected by a brick wall behind which sit the more private aspects of the dwelling whilst the front half is a large living space with the most breathtaking views over the San Fernando Valley. Window seating around the perimeter focuses the eye on a big central fireplace (the traditional domestic element seemingly most at odds with this futuristic extravaganza and again betraying Wright’s influence). The house has had a curious and not entirely happy history. It was commissioned, appropriately, by an aerospace engineer, Leonard Malin, for his family but by the mid-1970s he couldn’t afford to stay and it was sold to a Dr Richard Kuhn, who was stabbed and died during a robbery at the house in 1976. After this the house fell into disrepair until it was restored by publishing magnate Benedikt Taschen. Immediately it became a well-known party palace. Taschen has proved a fine custodian and one of the world’s most remarkable houses still looks coolly down on the City of Angels.

Looking down from the treetops on the other side of the Pacific is Japanese architect Terunobu Fujimori’s 2004 Takasugi-an. A tree-house tea-house, this building seems a world away from Lautner’s sci-fi fantasy. Fujimori, it is clear, takes a very different view from the West Coast modernist. Japanese tradition dictates that the tea house should be a simple, unassuming structure in which the focus is not on the architecture but on the tea ceremony. In fact, so unassuming are these buildings supposed to be that it is considered bad form to employ an architect or professional builder and better to build them yourself, which is exactly what Fujimori has done.

View from the Chemosphere house

While this is not a house in the true sense – not a place to dwell – it does, I think, reveal a huge amount about the dreams and desires embodied in an architecture of archetypes. Takasugi-an (the name, I am told, means “too-high-tea-house”) is a self-built structure on top of a pair of chestnut tree trunks in Chino City, in the picturesque Nagano Prefecture. This is a building which deals with imperfection and its irregularity is in contrast not only to the technocratic, crisply contemporary architecture which permeates Japan’s cities but also to the exquisite timber-and-paper building tradition which defines its historic landscape.

Frank Lloyd Wright (white hair), and John Lautner (at desk behind) in 1937

The house, like the trees it sits in, seems to be governed by organic growth. The roof, with its delicate individual shingles, looks like it has grown scales; the oddly-placed windows look like they have been salvaged from a more professional structure; and the walls look like ochre mud. The roof rises to what appears to be a fairytale chimney – though it transpires the real chimney is a spindly stack sitting to one side. This is a fairytale house, a house as seen or drawn by a child, or glimpsed in a dream – and that is what makes it so memorable.

Views from the Chemosphere over California's San Fernando Valley

Like all the best tree houses, this one has to be reached by ladder, and a small platform serves as porch and front yard. Inside, the house is tiny, even smaller than its dreamlike exterior suggests. The windows loom large and the views they give across the treetops orientate the interior to the seasons, locating the tea-maker in the cycle of nature. The coarseness of the walls and the constriction of the space make this tiny house almost more analogous to clothing than to architecture, it becomes a skin enveloping the single maker of tea. In contrast to the spectacularly social nature of the Chemosphere, this is a space of solitary contemplation, a room for one.

John Lautner's Chemosphere house

Fujimori is an intriguing figure. Unlike Lautner, whose path through architecture was a California blend of the fashionable and the eccentric, the Japanese architect came to prominence not so much for his buildings but for his Roadway Observation Society, an outfit that looks at the quirks and accidents, whether natural or man-made, which pervade the city. He calls it the “Urban Unconscious”. These may be the way nature begins to take hold of man-made objects or it might be the way a man-made object deforms in use, but most are about finding some kind of beauty in failure, decay or (mis)appropriation. This places Fujimori between the serious and the surreal; it is a kind of architectural deadpan – funny but unsettling.

These are both tree houses but what links them most intimately is that they are fantasy houses – but drawing on very different fantasies. The Chemosphere is a fantasy of a sci-fi social future looking down on the world around; Takasugi-an, a fantasy of a past half-remembered in a drowsy dream. And once glimpsed, even in a photograph, both remain utterly unforgettable.

‘The Meaning of Home’ by Edwin Heathcote is published by Frances Lincoln, priced £12.99

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.