When architect Stephanie Goto was tasked with creating an outdoor dining experience for the vaunted New York restaurant Daniel, she did so with an eye to the natural world. “As architects and designers, we’ve always talked about ‘bringing the outside in,’ ” says Goto. “And I think that in this moment when we’ve been retreating indoors, it’s really about how you bring the indoors out.”
The ubiquitous dining parklet—or “streetery”—is perhaps the most visible symbol of a current fascination with alfresco architectural interventions born out of necessity, but with potentially lasting effects on the built environment. The space Goto created—dubbed Boulud Sur Mer—is a cluster of bungalows that evoke the French seaside. Their spiky roofs look like ocean waves but also mimic the city skyline just beyond; partitions outfitted with porthole windows let patrons experience togetherness, even as they’re separated.
The trend is indicative of a universal yearning to find new ways to connect as we turn to the great outdoors as the latest (if only) conduit for sustained intimacy. Benjamin Turner and Isabel Avellan leaned into the possibilities of the moment with the serendipitously timed launch of their Oakland, California–based tree house design and fabrication studio, Wildernest Design. The duo’s mission to create modern tree houses akin to sculptural art installations took on a renewed sense of urgency when the pandemic hit; in 2020 they fashioned six whimsical arboreal creations for private clients throughout northern California. “We’re focused on getting people to play in nature, to feel some connection and ownership to the environment,” says Turner, who notes that they have largely worked on projects for families that want their children to be active outside in a well-designed area meant for play.
“We’re focused on getting people to play in nature.”
Outfitted with trapdoors, climbing nets, and rope bridges, Wildernest tree houses are feats of nature-inspired biomimetic design that incorporate recycled materials, such as one project clad in reclaimed redwood, fitted together in various geometric patterns. In addition to offering an imaginative way to interact with the outdoors, tree houses let property owners use backyards in a unique way: Building vertically maximizes available space and can activate areas that were previously deemed to be unusable, such as a steep hillside.
Similarly, architects Richard Bories and James Shearron, of the New York firm Bories & Shearron, were not considering the impact of COVID-19 when they built an 18-foot-tall folly (a decorative outdoor structure akin to a gazebo) for a 2020 showhouse in Lake Forest, Illinois. The intervening months have revealed newly relevant advantages to such flexible structures: The open-air, pergola-style building could easily be retrofitted with screens or a solid wall, affording a variety of uses. The pair also own a home in Lake Forest with a screened-in porch and have become evangelists for the architectural feature, citing the ample ventilation it provides—not to mention unobstructed views onto green space and protection from pesky insects.
Each designer predicted that the current need for such liminal spaces, flexible buildings, and temporal outdoor structures will outlast the current crisis, as we’ve become newly attuned to both the practical and restorative benefits of gathering outside. Turner envisions myriad applications of tree houses, such as plein air day cares or public spaces where people can congregate in a safely dispersed manner, separated, for instance, by strategically positioned platforms and rope bridges. Beyond shelter and the free flow of air, the indoor-outdoor structure fulfills another important role when it comes to coaxing people outside, says Turner: “It makes you feel you belong there.”
This story originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of ELLE Decor. SUBSCRIBE