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Mobile Orchard, London, UK

Issue 75 October/November 2013

The Mobile Orchard is a hymn to the urban fruit tree. Atmos worked with LED Linear, Wibre, Arup and Architectural FX to bring a touch of the countryside to the Square Mile.

Orchards and apples do not naturally spring to mind when one considers the stunning glass towers that mark out the City amid the constantly changing London skyline, yet the Mobile Orchard, an inhabitable public art installation by atmos, produced the most difficult of juxtapositions. It brought the magic of a day out in the countryside to London’s brash, mile a minute, financial centre.

Created by Alex Haw of atmos for the City of London Festival, the Orchard’s exuberant design mutates the convoluted form of natural trees, celebrating both the geometric structures of nature and the complicated social webs that form our cities.

The artwork was previewed in Paternoster Square, London, before it set off on a cross-city journey that took in Devonshire Square, the Gherkin and Finsbury Avenue Square.

By day the tree offers shade from the summer sun; by night it pulses with an internal electric rhythm, its luminous veins illuminating the path to a constellation of lights in its limbs.

The Orchard offers seating, shelter and a stairway up to the dreamily named ‘sky-throne’, which can be found in the upper echelons of the tree’s wooden web. Charmingly, the branches were made to cradle Braeburn apples, which were refreshed as quickly as the local City workers could pluck and eat them.

LED Linear, Architectural FX and Arup sponsored the lighting, equipment and brainpower that enabled the Mobile Orchard to come to life.
The tree trunk houses a miniature DMX processor that controls the illumination of the bark with glowing Xylem, while waterproof LED veins unite sky and soil, their sinuous lines graphically delineating the segments of the tree’s core geometry, each ending in a glowing spot of LED moonlight.

A lightweight latticework of curved and folded aluminium unfurls from the laminated plywood grains to support a canopy of clear lasercut leaves that glisten in the sunlight and in the LED light from below.
Each leaf was cut in the shape of a local London borough, with the host borough, further subdivided into wards, the blossom and seeds of the project.

Lighting was needed to enhance the Orchard once the sun had set, especially given the nocturnal working hours of the City. Lighting sponsors Architectural FX, LED Linear and Arup worked seamlessly and tirelessly to make the night-time tree even more spectacular than the day.

As with natural trees, the trunk became the central nervous system of the organism, sending signals up and down its length to trigger luminous tips. LED strips became geometric Xylem, pulsing with life, feeding the sky-borne leaf-like spots in the boughs above.

The tree’s powerful sculptural geometry formed the perfect showcase for LED Linear’s VarioLED Flex Venus. A very challenging installation environment and the constant relocation of the Orchard combined to push the resilience of the product to its outer limits. Venus’s beautiful lines of light gracefully delineate and illuminate all the sections along the length of the trunk and branches, like an anatomical X-ray. Venus’s unique flexible form also allowed for an unprecedented freedom of expression.

Co-sponsor Wibre’s recessed IP67 micro spots combined massive light output with maximum miniaturisation, and minute housing robust enough to survive in an external installation. Their tiny form was crucial in realising the design intent of long, slender branches, small enough that they could be housed in the tips of the tree branches, their wiring snaking through cavities cleverly concealed in the plywood slices.

The DMX programming brought the tree to life, separating the trunk’s twelve main segments into twelve channels, through which the light rotated like the hand of a clock, steadily thickening until a sheet of light enwrapped the whole, with the movement travelling through the nested spotlights like the delicate fluttering of fireflies. The clock accelerated to a climax every fifteen minutes, creating a visual accompaniment to the City’s surrounding church bells, with a dramatic thunderstorm climax on the hour.

The design of the Mobile Orchard furthers atmos’s ongoing investigations into natural forms, organic structures, experiential ergonomics, digital fabrication, and innovative public landscapes.
“This project was a unique opportunity for us to really grapple with the extraordinary beauty and complexity of trees,” says Alex Haw, director at atmos. “We’ve been designing projects that reference them, whether explicitly or unconsciously, for years, but never had the chance to share the stage with them, until now.”

Just as a tree benefits from a multitude of nutrients to aid its growth, the Mobile Orchard benefitted from an ecology of people and organisations, who all played a vital symbiotic role in helping to bring the project to life. Stuart Knox from Architectural FX was particularly crucial, partnering with LED Linear and Wibre to do everything possible to acheive excellence and make the project a success.

After its London journey was completed, this man-made tree was uprooted once again and has been donated to Trees for Cities. The charity plans to tour the tree across Britain for five years, while the young fruit trees that supported it on display have been donated to the City’s first orchard, as well as to a host of local London schools, in the hope that, in time, orchards will spring up there too.


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