The Book Tree was a research project designed and built by Prof. Peter Ferretto and his team at Condition_Lab, in collaboration with the Mei Foo District Council. In August 2018, the wooden installation that resembled a tree with an overhanging canopy full of books was placed under a flyover in the residential district of Mei Foo in Hong Kong. The objective of the project was twofold: to inhabit a lost urban “residual space” and to create a new type of reading experience for children within the Mei Foo neighbourhood.
Due to its high density and unique topography, Hong Kong has countless residual spaces – spaces that are not planned and typically occur by accident. These lost spaces have become frequently overlooked by-products of built-up infrastructure, invisible to local people who usually dismiss them as mundane background places devoid of purpose. For the research team, such spaces can be activated and transformed into inhabitable places through design. Here in the Book Tree project, instead of being a high-end service, design became a creative tool to transform a neglected corner beneath a flyover into an open community space, a popular reading and leisure area for neighbourhood residents, demonstrating how design can make an impact in an urban community through the use of residual spaces.
Unlike conventional Hong Kong libraries, the idea behind the Book Tree was to install a two-metre-high wooden structure where children could play while reading. The temporary installation comprised two elements: an open timber landscape for people to sit down and a tree structure that held books donated by a non-profit organisation for the community to take and exchange freely. The structure was conceived as a tree where each of its different “branches” housed books for different ages. It was built from untreated timber so as to reconnect children to the warmth of natural materials contrasting to the hard materiality of the surrounding infrastructure.
The Book Tree showed how good design need not be confined to museums and galleries, while architecture should be socially motivated and play a fundamental role in helping society.