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How to build a tree: Mobile Orchard by Atmos

Atmos’ Alex Haw introduces the Mobile Orchard, an artwork-cum-sky-throne made from LEDs, aluminium – and wood

The Mobile Orchard is a sculptural timber oasis that doubles as immersive summer street furniture – morphing into seating, shelter, stairway and sky-throne. Commissioned for the City of London Festival, which took the theme ‘urban tree’, this inhabitable public art installation made its debut in Paternoster Square in July, before undertaking a weekly journey stopping at Devonshire Square, the Gherkin and Finsbury Avenue Square.

The tree’s undulating roots offer a landscape for lounging, including sinuous benches and a molten armchair that cradle the gaze upwards through the hollow trunk. Massive branches worm outwards from the dramatically leaning trunk to offer further seats, splaying to form steps that spiral upwards to a throne at the tip. Lightweight latticework of curved and folded aluminium unfurls from the laminated plywood grains to support a canopy of laser-cut leaves – each blade cut without waste into the shape of a local London borough, with the host borough subdivided into wards – both the blossom and seeds of the project.

The branches cradle a constellation of Braeburn apples, refreshed as quickly as City workers can pluck and eat them. The trunk houses a miniature processor that illuminates its bark with glowing Xylem: waterproof LED veins uniting sky and soil, their sinuous lines graphically delineating the segments of the tree’s core geometry, each terminating in a glowing spot of LED moonlight.

Now the festival is over, the Mobile Orchard has been donated to the charity Trees for Cities, which plans to tour it across Britain for five years. Its attendant choir of young fruit trees has been donated to the City’s first orchard, and to a number of local schools to start their own orchards.

Mobile Orchard

Source: Alex Haw

Technical overview

The Mobile Orchard was designed as a fluid, freeform set of solids – each governed by a complex set of ergonomic, regulatory, geometric and fabricational constraints – that could then be auto-sliced, labelled and arrayed for simple CNC cutting.

Like a tree, it has a unique grain – a radiating grid of 30-degree segments, each composed of parallel laminated slices of 4mm birch plywood, bound and wound back to central tree rings within the hollow trunk. Every other segment worms out as an undulating root of public seating, converging in a sumptuous trunk base that contains 1.2kg of ballast to counter both live and dead loads on the cantilevering, spiralling trunk above. A family of 20 removable bifurcating branches ties into carefully engineered double-chamfered slots winding up the trunk, wound in and bolted, then capped by a sinuous seam of LED lighting that runs in 16mm-wide excavated grooves up and over the entire tree.

Thin folded laser-cut aluminium secondary branches peel out from slots in the timber boughs to carry a canopy of ‘London Leaves’.

  • Alex Haw, director, Atmos

Materials

  • 600 no. 2.43 x 1.21m sheets 4mm Latvian birch plywood
  • 300 sheets 1250 x 2500mm ‘Priplak’ Polypropylene
  • 3 2.43 x 1.21m sheets 1.2mm aluminium
  • 90m 12W/m IP65-rated LED strips
  • 22 3W IP65 LED spots
  • 160 hours CNC time

Mobile Orchard

Project data

Design Atmos
Structural engineering Blue Engineering
Lighting design Arup
Lighting sponsor Architectural FX / LEDLinear / Wibre
Fabrication Nicholas Alexander + volunteers
Logistics Tellings Transport
Real orchard trees Donated by YouGarden and The Worshipful Company of Fruiterers
Microsite web design 8fold
Client City of London Festival
Festival tree sponsor Bloomberg
Funding partner Arts Council England
Hosts Broadgate Estates, Devonshire Square Management, Land Securities, 30 St Mary Axe Management Company Ltd

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