Last month, during the London Design Festival, design was everywhere- even in a tree house three meters high. Second year BA Design student Belen Palacios had an idea: to take conversations on design in a different space altogether. With support from a group of fellow students, sponsors and many other people who believed in her project, Belen set things in motion, and after a long process of gathering funds, planning, designing and building, Tree Hub became reality and between 12 – 22 September hosted talks on a varied number of current issues, all limited to an exclusive maximum audience of ten. Here’s an interview with Belen in the pavilion on the day before the first talk, when bits and pieces were still being cut and hammered into place.
Nadia: Why a tree house?
Belen: Because it felt like a challenge. Because it felt like something we’d never done before. I think there’s this human need of going up, people always want to go up and to see things from a higher perspective. I feel that the tree house is also something that interacts with how the conversation happens. Our idea was that when people come up here, they have a different perception of themselves and what surrounds them, because they’re not on the ground or in a formal space, it’s something a bit more playful. This is a tree house, we’re meeting up and having a chat.
Nadia: How did you go around building it? Did you have professional builders helping you and telling you what to do?
Belen: The whole project was about us trying to figure out how to do things, and if we didn’t feel confident with something, we were asking someone how to do it. We got a couple of engineers to check the structure and to make sure everything was safe, we had conversations with a few architects about how everything was going. I think the building team might have involved about 15-20 people, and most of them don’t have much experience, but they were really into learning. A lot of it was just coating and cleaning, laser cutting, very repetitive tasks, but even though they didn’t have the experience, they had the patience to go through every task very carefully, taking care of the fact that we didn’t have the money to get more materials!
Nadia: How long did the building itself take?
Belen: The design took about a month and a half, the building in the workshop, around three weeks, and we’ve been building on-site for a week. It was meant to be 2-3 days, but it was impossible. I think it was just a matter of inexperience, but we thought everything would match because we had done everything perfectly, but fresh sawn timber is still alive! So when we were trying to put things together here we were still cutting, and it was a very difficult task for group of inexperienced builders.
Nadia: So it was like putting together a big puzzle.
Belen: Yes. Basically, we could have done everything in a day, but I wouldn’t be sitting up here very safely. We decided it would be better to make it safe than to make it fast. Try to move the columns: they don’t even shiver! One of the main challenges with this project has been managing time- if we had more time, we could have simplified the way we were building it, but not having time made it even harder to build. And then once you come on to the next step, you realise there’s something you could have done easier before, but there’s no going back because it’s built that way already, so you have to move on. We all think that if we were to build it again it would be very different. But at the same time we think it’s very magical how it all came together.
Nadia: Did you spend all day long here working on it?
Belen: About a month and a half ago I realised that we couldn’t keep working until late at night, and I said: “I’m the project manager, we’re working 10 to 6, Monday to Friday”. But two weeks later, we were running out of time, so we kept working on the weekends and late at night. This has destroyed our health and perspective on life! (laughs) I was aware that it would be very tiring, not only physically but also mentally, and I thought we would need to stop and go home and rest, but we were working even in the dark, and there was no way of stopping the team! We really wanted it to happen, people were very committed. Even when there were problems, we kept on working, and we were never defeated.
Nadia: Was there ever a moment when you felt like giving up?
Belen: I don’t think I ever felt like giving up. But I think that’s only because there were so many people involved in the project, that if I was going to give up, then it would be so disappointing, not only for me but for everybody involved. When we all came together, it was our project, it wasn’t just my project anymore. At that point, there was no way of giving up, it was already happening.
Nadia: How do you think this space changes the conversation?
Belen: We felt we needed a change in the way in which we exchange knowledge and opinions. The people that we have coming here are quite used to having a talk in an auditorium, and I feel like this sort of talks can put them on a pedestal: “this is the knowledge, there’s no way to question it”. So we really wanted to change this, because in design everyone has experience , you are part of the world and you interact with it, you should question what you do and have your own opinion of things. We thought it would be very interesting to get people together and see what happens when they interact in an egalitarian space, we’re all around the table. When we were coming up with topics for the conversations, we were asking the host to come up with the theme they wanted to explore. It wasn’t us telling them “you usually talk about this, so talk about this”. People came up with things that were interesting to them, that they were curious to see what other people think.
Nadia: So, who are you, the person who started this project?
Belen: I’m from Barcelona. I always say that I was born by the Llobregat, and I reside by the Thames, because I feel that the relationship with nature is very important. I studied advertising and PR back in Barcelona and I was very unsatisfied with the industry, I was looking for something different, more experimental. Goldsmiths has completely changed my perception of what I’m capable of doing, I don’t think two years ago I would have thought I’d be able to do this. And in fact when we had our first day at Goldsmiths, Matt Ward gave us a speech, and he said that Damien Hirst on his second year changed the history of art, and that we were expected to do something really big on our second year. I’m not sure if this is up to his expectations, but I hope it is!
Nadia: It’s definitely something very tall!
Belen: I’m very interested in post-disciplinary design, and this project has been very interesting in that sense- not only creating a space and building it, but also we’re hosting these conversations, we’re working on the graphic design, the website, all these little pieces that make a project a project. I don’t believe it’s been just an architectural project, we had to look into every single detail that makes the whole of it. This is the kind of design that I believe in. And I think what makes this project interesting for me is the fact that it’s not for us, it’s something that we’ve put in the world for people to explore, to be a part of, and it’s for free, we believe in things happening without commercial purpose, I’m not sure if that’s very naïve.
Nadia: But you come from advertising! Was it the selling aspect of it what turned you away from that environment?
Belen: I don’t think it was just the commercial part, it’s more about how ideas are only driven onto that, and it’s very limiting to creative capabilities. But that’s why design is so good, because you get to do anything with it. Advertising is just a little part of the world, but design is everywhere, design is everything we touch, by becoming a designer you get to actually influence things that people have in their environment.
Nadia: What else do you want to say about yourself or the project and I haven’t asked?
Belen: I feel like this project has been too ambitious for what we could reach with our experience and money, and budget, and our human capabilities. But the fact that we are just a bunch of students who managed to put this up, that makes me think that if you want to do it, you can do it, it’s just a matter of having the curiosity to explore things. If you have an idea, just go ahead, you are your only limitation!
The tree house is now gone from Peckham, but since it’s built from wonderful, long-lasting materials, there are plans to re-install it at Goldsmiths, though not quite as high. So be prepared to hear about it again! In the meantime, you can find here the full list of supporters, collaborators and sponsors that helped make Tree Hub happen, and read more about its development on the Tree Hub blog.