Steam Punks in the Trees 

Sean Orlando's Steampunk Tree House brings retro-futurism to the Crucible's Fire Arts Festival.

Sean Orlando is a key player in the West Oakland warehouse arts scene, and, with his tattoos and Flaming Lotus Girls T-shirts, he definitely looks the part. But he's also an enthusiast for early 20th-century ephemera: steam locomotives, time machines, the ungainly contraptions of Buckminster Fuller. He's a voracious science fiction reader (H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Jules Verne, especially) who fell in love with the Dickensian wrought-iron architecture depicted in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's The City of Lost Children. When not working as a metal fabrication instructor and events coordinator for the Crucible — West Oakland's famed industrial arts foundry — Orlando spends his time thinking of retro-futuristic inventions that combine scavenged materials with a post-apocalyptic, vintage aesthetic.

And, like the doomsayers of the Industrial Age, Orlando criticizes our perverse — in his words, "increasingly unnatural" — engagement with nature. He argues that as we've become more and more disconnected, we've turned nature into a kind of fetish (think: vegan diets, cargo cults, An Inconvenient Truth, raw foodism, your sexy new Prius). Meanwhile, he said, our lifestyle choices still require — even encourage — a predatory relationship with the natural world. "We cut down trees, we dig up coal, we mine for ore, we dig for oil," Orlando said. "We take these resources from nature, but we don't really have a healthy respect for what's being provided to us."

In pondering what to create for last year's Burning Man festival (the theme, appropriately enough, was "green man"), he wanted to represent the neo-Romantic aesthetics that have gained currency in an age of resource depletion and ethical quandaries. He wanted something that symbolized our preoccupation with connecting to the natural world, even as we destroy it. And, in keeping with the ethos of the Crucible — which combines old means of industrial fabrication with a futuristic, DIY sensibility — he wanted to create a piece of vintage fantasy-world architecture using scrap repurposed from the streets of West Oakland. Orlando had, at his disposal, sixty part-time workers, a small grant from Burning Man, and six months of construction time.

Ergo, the Steampunk Tree House: 23,000 pounds of structural steel and brass rivets, made to resemble the kind of handsome Victorian architecture you'd see in Mary Poppins. Rusted but incredibly ornate, it's become an icon for the burgeoning "steam punk" subculture that formed roughly two decades ago, as a DIY-backlash to our unethical modern lifestyle. (Steam punk devotees live in their own self-contained time capsule, embracing neo-Edwardian fashions, analog computers, and early 20th-cenutry bric-a-brac.) Entirely non-combustible, it's still the most compelling thing at this year's Crucible Fire Arts Festival — and perhaps the best piece of creative anachronism to arise from West Oakland in a long time.

The idea was to combine the pastoral vibe of a tree house with the romance of dirigible-age machines (gas lights, structural steel, a 1920s steam engine designed by Kinetic Steam Works). Orlando said they had a general idea of what materials to use, and how to manipulate them, though the whole thing was "spontaneous and instinctual" — and, to a large degree, designed on the fly. The crew already had assembled some roots and branches when they found what turned out to be the perfect linchpin for their invention: 20 feet of pipe that he found sticking out of the sidewalk in front of NIMBY, an art studio on 28th Street, housed in what used to be a mechanical engineering building. The pipe might have been an old base for billboards, though Orlando thought it was left over from the industrial high tension wires that clotted West Oakland neighborhoods prior to all the condo development. At any rate, it was just what they needed. After getting approval from a couple neighbors, they came back with an oxygen-acetylene torch and tore the thing down. "It took one person and a big forklift to cut it, and ten people to stand around and watch," Orlando recalled.

They subsequently welded the trunk with steel rungs, spaced roughly three feet apart, for a rather steep ascent. (Orlando wants to supply a scissor lift for the faint of heart.) The door is large and thick, with a giant handle that resembles something out of J.R.R. Tolkien. Upstairs, the interior is dome-shaped, with a wood-burning stove and a hearth made by concrete sculptor Ake Grunditz, who decorated it with old alchemical symbols. ("I think one means iron, one means alcohol, one might mean steam," Orlando explained). Embossed, hand-painted wallpaper adorns the walls, along with gas lamps rewired to use LED bulbs. There's a telescope mounted on the main balcony, a calliope pipe organ with nine whistles powered by steam, an old Phoenix Iron Works manhole cover, a traveling chest that must have been filched from an old jalopy, a weathervane on the roof, and a steel vulture hanging from a cable. The whole thing can be disassembled and packed in semi-trucks, which is how Orlando got it to Burning Man (where it debuted last fall), then Coachella, then the Stage Coach Festival.

The Steampunk Tree House was designed as a "patron pavilion," i.e., a high-end experience for festivalgoers who pay $50 for their tickets. There's a barrel decanting wine, an exclusive porter potty, and a triaporator (i.e., an adjustable aperture that functions "like the iris on a camera") that allows you to gaze imperiously down at all the groundlings below (Orlando said it offered a great view of Prince and Roger Waters when they took the piece to Coachella). A subwoofer in the tree trunk hooks up to an iPod, so that patrons can listen to tripped-out electronic music while shuffling through drawers and secret compartments, or perusing a copious fake bookshelf. (On his web site, Orlando promises tomes bearing the names of lost and "never written" manuscripts.) All of the branches belch steam, suffusing the whole interior in a warm, vaporous fog. A sepia-toned scroll hangs from one wall, with a cheeky admonition: "Please operate the triaporator delicately. It is unstable and may explode. Many thanks."

It's hard to believe, in the midst of all this lavishness, that the Steampunk Tree House was actually constructed on a shoestring budget, and that Orlando went into debt making the thing. In fact, he says, "It's for sale if you wanna buy it." So indicates the sassy marketing pitch on his web site: "Let's say your 15th century Japanese revival style compound just isn't doing it for you anymore, maybe you're just disenchanted with private space flight opportunities, perhaps that private island's (with fresh water) lost its luster and needs a little Verne era pizzazz? Look no further!"

Orlando is still waiting for the highest bidder — someone just crazy enough to buy a futuristic "green" home with solar panels and LED lighting, that nonetheless looks like a total anachronism.

He said Google was interested.


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