IN 1990, Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz was invited to enter an architectural contest and submit ideas for the future suburban development of Paris. She had always been a nonconformist, and her plan seemed bizarre. What she proposed was a mini-city consisting of 60 high-rise buildings in the shape of trees.
"At the beginning of the 20th century," she writes, "such achievements of modern technology as airplanes, ocean liners, or American grain elevators inspired artists and architects. Now, facing the 21st century, the awareness of imperiled nature turned my attention elsewhere. The tree, endangered all over the planet, yet so important for its survival, became my inspiration."
The buildings would be 200 to 250 feet tall and 20 to 90 feet wide, and each building's concrete exterior would be planted with vegetation. Apart from its visual effect, softening the hard outlines of cast concrete, the greenery would help freshen the polluted atmosphere of Paris by taking up carbon dioxide and returning oxygen to the air. Each building would be equipped with solar and wind energy collectors so that it could supply its own energy needs.
Abakanowicz was one of 22 artists invited to submit proposals for a design competition, and she has been selected as one of the finalists. Whether or not she wins first prize, it now seems likely that two to six of her tree-like buildings will be constructed.
In her own way, Magdalena Abakanowicz is intensely practical. Like many other artists, she was lonely as a child, but in spite of major difficulties, personal and historical, she has succeeded for more than 30 years in making her artistic dreams come true.
She was born near Warsaw in 1930, to a rich, aristocratic family. Her surname derives from the name of a distant ancestor, Abaka Khan, a great-grandson and successor of Genghis Khan, who ruled over vast territories.
During childhood, Abakanowicz relied on herself and her daydreams for company. Quite early it became clear that, as the second of two daughters, she was a disappointment to her mother, who had very much wanted a son and left Magdalena to be brought up by servants.
"I had no companions of my own age," she recalls. "I had to fill the enormously long and empty days, alone, minutely exploring everything in the environment. Learning about all that was alive - watching, touching, and discovering - was accomplished in solitude.
"Time was capacious, roomy; leaves grew slowly and slowly changed their shape and color. Everything was immensely important. All was at one with me." Eventually she and her mother were reconciled, but she says she still feels more comfortable in nature than in society.
Lonely as she was, she was safe, but her sheltered existence was threatened and ultimately destroyed by the German invasion of Poland in 1939. After the communist takeover that followed World War II, her family was forced to leave its estate and move to Warsaw, where they lived in poverty.
By concealing her origins, Abakanowicz was able to go to art school from 1950 to 1954. Unfortunately for her, Polish art was at that time dominated by socialist realism, the artistic tendency favored by Stalin, who believed that the true purpose of art was to help build a communist society.
Always distrustful of rules, whether communist or capitalist, Abakanowicz offended her teachers, who reacted by giving her poor marks. …