The Tree that Is, that Were Not, that Will Be

The Tree that Is, that Were Not, that Will Be
“The Tree that Is, The Trees that Were Not, The Trees that Will Be”, a project completed by Penelope Phylactopoulos, Armida Fernandez and Aranza de Ariño
Inspired from the practice of plant propagation at Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, the installation aims to challenge one’s notion of individuality.

Penelope Phylactopoulos
Athens, Greece
Team members
Aranza de Arino
Armida Fernandez
Penelope Phylactopoulos
Field of work
Architecture, Design, Ecology, Curating, Research
Project category
Raising awareness
Project submitted

Penelope is a multidisciplinary designer practicing between Athens & New York. Propelled by narratives, experimentation, and a strong sensibility of materiality, her work spans architecture, exhibition design and research.

Penelope’s background is on architecture, where she contributed on the realization of multi-scale projects; notable work includes the Bronx Children’s Museum, which has been widely awarded, including the 2023 Architect’s Newspaper Best of Design Award.Between 2020-2023 she co-founded a creative design studio, Office of Open Practice Studio/Agency, during which she collaborated with institutions such as the Brooklyn Public Library and NewInc, the New Museum’s cultural incubator. Penelope recently completed a reinterpretation of Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery Art of This Century and co-curated the 31 Women Collection, a tribute to the first all-women identifying show in US History. In 2018 spent time in Yucatán, researching and documenting the existing cultural and natural heritage of different towns and co-creating moments that aspire to facilitate the conservation of Mayan ancestry. Her work has led to projects, fellowships and artist’s residencies in the US, Mexico, and Ghana. Penelope held an adjunct lecturer position at CUNY, NY in 2021 AND 2023 teaching architecture foundations and about the history of sustainability and the build environment.

Penelope’s interests center on the relationship between nature and the built environment, community engagement, and exploring new modes of representation. The research of innovative and sustainable materials and processes is a focus she wishes to continue exploring.

She holds a Bachelors of Architecture with honors from Illinois Institute of Technology (‘13) and a Masters in Design Studies from Harvard University Graduate School of Design (‘19).

Inspired from the practice of plant propagation at Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, the installation “The Tree that Is, The Trees that Were Not, The Trees that Will Be” aims to challenge one’s notion of individuality. Plant organisms exist in tension between the singular and the multiple; “If I cut my arm, no new ‘me’ will grow out of it”, whereas a new individual tree can grow from another’s cutting. Propagation, a practice of patience, trial, and error dismantles our notion of failure and success. The project is tracing the lineage of the individual Metasequoia tree 3-48, from its original provenance to how its currently being propagated in the greenhouse, from seed to tree and seed/cuttings back to a tree. The installation consists of tags, using the Arboretum’s classification system, and represents the multiple times the tree has been propagated. Trees can live without us but we can not live without them. The patience of waiting for a seed to germinate or a cutting to root is a tenacious action that will affect the future.

The first metasequoia tree to arrive in the Unites States of America, in 1948, is a unique living organism. Collected as seeds from China in 1947 and brought to Harvard Arnold Arboretum in 1948. This metasequoia, tagged with the numbers 3-48, has been propagated hundred of times since then, as found through human records. The journey of the majority of these cuttings is short… yet the journey of the 3-48 individual is an ongoing and growing path. The journey of 3-48 does not solely belong in the grounds of the Arboretum however, existing physically all over the country and the world, where other institutions planted seeds from that specific tree. Albeit it physically belongs to a specific number of places all over the globe, the first metasequoia in the USA has undoubtedly transmitted a unique experience for whoever stood inside its trunk, within the six leaders that composes this tree.