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Towards a Technology of Trees in Architecture: From ‘Epistemes’ to ‘Dispositifs’

Trees in architectural representations have long been marginalised, simplified, fragmented into various images and objectified for instrumental use, for example, in European perspectival drawings and plans, in which the tree supports, sometimes literally, a human-made machine, body or project. This dissertation questions this as a ‘natural’ condition of architectural design, and instead, suggests a more ethical ‘technical’ value for the tree in architecture, in which the tree is not just a representation of modern thought and science, but in which the tree is an integral matter of concern or constituent in a holistic design ambition.  


It examines how European Renaissance and early-modern representations of trees abstract this natural resource into a measured, geometric body of knowledge. In contrast, it suggests that traditions such as the Japanese Daiku tradition, or contemporary recycling manufacture of wood, re-present the tree as both a technical, but also more holistic architectural ‘figure/matter/form’. As such, I argue that these two distinct traditions – on the one hand, the European fascination with mensuration and abstraction, versus the latter, cultural/hybridised re-presentation of the tree, can also be understood through Foucault’s genealogical or archaeology methodology. Consequently, I suggest that the European representation of trees can be understood after Foucault’s concept of disciplinary ‘epistemes’ (or knowledges), whereas, the Daiku or ‘master carpenter’ construction method, resembles Foucault’s concept of ‘dispositif’, which is also more closely associated with his later writings about an ‘ethics of technology’.


As such, I suggest that Foucault’s study of disciplinary epistemic knowledge, to this ethics of technology has value for architects who are, today, interested in providing more holistic and ecological ways of working with – or re-presenting – trees in architecture, in a manner that is more ethically-responsive to the urgent issues of climate change crisis and carbon reduction.


The contrast between the external, instrumental tree in the 17th-century Italian altarpiece and the internal, processual tree in the 14th-century Japanese handscroll is sharp but understandable: timber was used as a primary building material in ancient Japan, whereas in Italy it was not, which naturally led to different ways of viewing trees in architecture. Yet this thesis addresses the gap in knowledge if an architectural history of trees is solely constructed by, or ‘originated’ from, a history of building in which the tree is instrumentalised, or subsumed to stone. Largely written and drawn in a mono-technological context [1] where trees are not central to the discipline’s knowledge of construction and material, the taken-for-granted images of trees in Architecture needed to be problematized and rewritten. Whether inscribed as dashed squares and confused with the colonnade in the Forma Urbis of ancient Rome, [2] or depicted marvellously against Boullée’s Cenotaph for Newton, [3] or rendered as flourishing settings in modernist and contemporary projects made of steel, glass and concrete, trees are intentionally included, excluded and represented to serve an ‘architectural’ purpose. We must step back, look at those tree discourses and images that are too familiar, or appear ‘natural’, and ask: what role is given to trees in a history of western architectural design drawing? How have trees served a range of purposes and formed a series of fixed images throughout this kind of history? How do these representations, subject to certain discursive conditions, enable or restrict the value and meaning of trees for our current environmental concerns? What Asian understanding of trees is missing and what can these traditions tell us, or give to the contemporary architectural historian? When the issue of trees is brought to the forefront of our ecological crisis, is it not time to reconsider the role of trees in architectural representation, and to challenge dominant western-oriented understandings? This thesis seeks to answer these questions through investigating historical examples, which can assist in offering representational, cultural and technological understandings to the role of trees which are more reflective of our current ecological concerns. 


Close reading and analysis of visual representations, including artworks, architectural drawings and engineer/technical drawings concerning trees is the primary method in this thesis. Most of the drawings are from archives, illustrations or frontispieces for different editions of the same Renaissance treatise, and some of them are shown as artefacts (gao-chi), discovered on-site by preservation scholars or from the author’s previous research experiences in Fujian, southern China. 


Foucault’s study of disciplinary epistemic knowledge and his later shift to the ethics of technology are the theoretical clues this thesis will follow. He is relevant, not only because he deals with the relationship between representation, discourse and a relatively passive ‘power technology’, but also for his turning to a ‘technological concept of power’ and a more positive ethics of technology, which to some extent, responds to and complements the former agenda. [4] In the thesis, the representation of trees, far from a passive, object reflection of an arboreal truth, will be treated as an active medium through which discourses enable the exercise of power and effects. An ‘Archaeology’ method will be adopted in search of the ‘discursive formation’ or ‘epistemes’ within which a ‘power technology’ operates and several seemingly truthful tree images are produced and limited. [5] Then, based on a ‘technological conception of power’ (that produces and creates) and two case studies, an ethical technology of trees is envisioned, where ‘epistemes’ are ‘recycled’, ‘reassembled’ and ‘re-presented’ as ‘dispositifs’, a concept replaced ‘epistemes’ in late Foucault.


The essay is structured into two main sections. In the first part, an archaeological analysis identifies three key epistemes of trees in architecture: the historical tree in Renaissance illustrations and frontispieces of architectural treatises; the abstract tree in architectural plans and perspectives; and the engineered tree in structural or morphological diagrams. Through close readings of textual and visual sources from Vitruvius to contemporary practices, it excavates how each episteme emerges and operates as a negative 'political technology' that manages trees in particular spatial and temporal configurations. In the second part, the thesis searches for a new ethical 'technology' of trees, drawing on Foucault's later conception of 'dispositifs'. It looks briefly at the Chinese master carpenter's 'gao-chi' as an alternative ecological knowledge system that relates the tree heterogeneously yet relationally. Finally, it proposes the manufacturing process of oriented strand board (OSB) as a metaphor for technologically ‘recycling’, 'shredding', ‘juxtaposing’ and ‘reassembling’ the passive, problematic epistemes into new, cross-oriented relationships and subjectivities between humans and trees.

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Fig. 1: Varotari A., Beato Giordano Forzatè traccia i confini della chiesa, 1631, oil on canvas, Padova, Italy

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Fig. 2: Matsuzaki Tenjin Engi Emaki, 1311, illustrated handscroll, Hofu Tenmangu, in A hundred pictures of daiku at work, 33.

[1] Yuk Hui, The Question Concerning Technology in China : An Essay in Cosmotechnics / Yuk Hui., Mono ; 003 (Falmouth, United Kingdom: Urbanomic Media Ltd, 2016).

[2] ‘Theater of Pompey (Theatrum Pompeianum) with the Temple of Venus Victrix (Aedes Veneris Victricis)’, Archaeology, Stanford Digital Forma Urbis Romae Project, n.d.,

[3] Barbara Maria Stafford, ‘Science as Fine Art: Another Look at Boullée’s Cenotaph for Newton’, Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 11, no. 1 (1982): 241–78,

[4] Michael C. Behrent, ‘Foucault and Technology’, History and Technology 29, no. 1 (2013): 54–104,

[5] David Garland, ‘What Is a 'History of the Present'? On Foucault’s Genealogies and Their Critical Preconditions’, Punishment & Society 16, no. 4 (2014): 365–84,

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