When is a tree not a tree? When it’s the Tree of Trees, a 21-metre-high steel storage rack of saplings, designed by Thomas Heatherwick. The designer’s latest abuse of natural metaphors now looms on the street corner outside Buckingham Palace, its spiralling brown “trunk” of hefty steel tubes rising to support big steel “branches”, carrying dozens of little windswept trees in aluminium pots.
It is supposed to be the celebratory symbol of the The Queen’s Green Canopy (QGC), a nationwide tree-planting initiative honouring the platinum jubilee, described by Heatherwick as “an incredible community campaign that’s literally changing the landscape of our nation”. After this weekend’s celebrations, the 350 British native trees – ranging from silver birch and rowan to larch, hornbeam and hazel – will be “gifted to selected community groups” in the hope of inspiring a new generation of tree planters.
As some have pointed out on Twitter, the result doesn’t quite live up to the Heatherwickian fairytale promise, which saw his vision depicted with the usual misty-eyed bucolic charm of a Gainsborough landscape. Instead, the finished result is more clumsy cloud of steel than lush green canopy, standing as a massively over-engineered structure that recalls a hastily disguised mobile phone mast. Perhaps the Queen will receive ultrafast 5G broadband as a bonus jubilee gift?
It is yet another example of the recent fetish among certain architects and designers for conjuring a cartoonish version of nature, suspending shrubbery and balancing trees in ways that make the plants look decidedly unhappy to be there. It comes just after the comically disastrous Marble Arch Mound, the £6m heap of scaffolding, spindly saplings and withered turf that may have helped topple the local council. It turned out to be the literal hill that the City of Westminster’s Tory leadership chose to die on, according to Labour, who took control of the council for the first time since its creation.
Heatherwick himself has become the puckish poster boy for the current bout of arboreal mania. He has perched 1,000 trees on top of great concrete pillars in the hope of making a lumpen shopping mall in China look like a verdant mountain. His Little Island park in Manhattan has imprisoned a forest of trees inside a thick concrete deck, their constricted root-balls weighed down with massive anchors to stop them blowing into the Hudson River. He has even incorporated his trademark plant-pots-on-sticks into a range of office furniture. If in doubt, the studio mantra seems to go – just smother the design with a garnish of greenery. A well-placed tree can cover a multitude of sins. The flimsy veil of foliage couldn’t, however, redeem Heatherwick’s cursed Garden Bridge, the one pastoral dream that got away – though not before it swallowed £43m of public money. If there was still any doubt, the Tree of Trees provides stark evidence that London dodged a bullet by ditching the bridge.
But Her Majesty’s big, steel tree-holder is not just an aesthetic disappointment, a gross misuse of carbon-hungry steel and aluminium and a mistreatment of 350 saplings, with all the associated transportation emissions and irrigation costs. As the Guardian reported this week, campaigners say that the QGC is sponsored by several major companies associated with deforestation, including McDonalds, Coutts bank and power company Drax.
Louisa Casson, head of forests for Greenpeace UK, said: “Sadly, the number of trees that this scheme might help to plant is a tiny fraction of the number the scheme’s corporate sponsors have helped to destroy. It’s an insult to the volunteers taking part to use their efforts to greenwash the reputations of companies that drive deforestation across the world.”
In response, McDonalds said it is committed to eliminating deforestation from its global supply chains; the NatWest group, owner of Coutts, said it had identified biodiversity and nature loss as an emerging risk for the bank; while Drax disputed its links to deforestation, saying much of the wood they use for fuel is a waste product. A spokesperson for the tree-planting scheme said: “Each company that has generously supported the QGC is committed to rigorous and challenging targets on both deforestation and biodiversity.”
Campaigners have also pointed out that the royal family’s own land holdings are relatively bereft of trees. The Duchy of Cornwall, owned by Prince Charles, has only 6% tree coverage compared with 16% UK-wide. Balmoral, the Queen’s estate in Scotland, contains large swathes of grouse moor, with only small fragments of woodland remaining on land that would once have been covered in forest. The brief spate of jubilant tree-planting will do little to compensate for decades of abuse, they argue.
The real climax of the Tree of Trees is still to come on Thursday night, when it will play a central role in the momentous lighting of the jubilee beacons. It could be an apt climax if Heatherwick’s gigantic steel structure turns out to be a multi-armed flame-thrower, just like his 2012 Olympic cauldron, firing flares from its branches to ignite the royal beacons. A skeleton of scorched saplings dangling outside the palace would make a fitting monument to our times.