Published November 10, 2015
Birds. Bugs. Bats. Traditionally labeled as "pests," these city-dwelling species are often relegated to the fringes and dark corners of both urban life and urban architecture. But a trio of projects by architecture professor Joyce Hwang celebrate and centralize urban wildlife as part of the "Outside Design" exhibition in Chicago.
A collateral event with the first Chicago Architectural Biennial, curated by the School of Art Institute of Chicago, "Outside Design" explores the turn in art and design toward biotechnology and ecological systems with an emphasis on interdisciplinary work. Hwang and her practice Ants of the Prairie joins four other firms whose research-based work develops new knowledge at the edges of design practice. A dialogic exhibition, Outside Design will be engaged throughout the fall by SAIC students, faculty, and visiting artists and designers to continuously transform the gallery space. On display at the SAIC's Sullivan Galleries, the exhibition runs Sept. 11 - Dec. 19.
The design inquiry is hardly new for Hwang, an associate professor who has for years pursued research in mutualistic design for animals, “confronting the pleasures and horrors of our contemporary ecologies.” In 2010, Hwang installed "Bat Tower," a 12-foot-tall twisting pillar of plywood with nooks and crannies perfect for bats, in Griffis Sculpture Park in Otto, NY. Suspended from the tree canopy in Buffalo’s Tifft Nature Preserve is "Bat Cloud" (2012), a cluster of stainless steel mesh pods that house bats. Hwang was recognized with an Emerging Voices award from the Architectural League of New York in 2014.
For “Outside Design,” Hwang has developed a prototype wall that reconsiders the façade as a “living membrane”; a window detail in Chicago’s historic Carson Pirie Scott building to prevent bird collisions; and an interactive surveillance system that engages the public in urban wildlife tracking.
Of her wall prototype – “Habitat Wall” – Hwang explains: "I am interested in exploring how a wall can act not only as a facade but also as an inhabitable, living membrane.” Constructed from cedar, pine and recycled building materials, Habitat Wall is designed for bat and bird inhabitation, giving a spatial and tactile presence to species-specific considerations. Its main features include thin crevices of space for occupation by bats, as well as bird nesting boxes and surfaces for swallows and other cliff-dwelling birds.
Hwang’s “No Crash Zone” window installation stems from Hwang’s interest in design solutions to the No. 1 cause of urban bird mortality: collisions with glass. The issue is being explored by the Audubon Society and American Bird Conservancy as well as U.S. Green Building Council. Hwang also found inspiration in Chicago’s activism on the issue. The Chicago Bird Collision Monitors canvasses the city for bird strike areas and advocates for the "Lights Out! Chicago" program to encourage buildings over 60 stories tall to turn off their lights after 11:00 pm during peak migration times.
Installed in the historic Carson Pirie Scott building designed by Louis Sullivan, "No Crash Zone" seeks to make bird-safe building features add to rather than detract from the architectural setting.
With a nod to the tiling pattern framing the building’s windows, the project creates visual noise through the deployment of graphic ornament, reconsidering its role beyond agendas of aesthetic composition. In other words, No Crash Zone makes visible the logics of bird-strike prevention while still aspiring toward architecture’s preoccupations with the humanist subject.
"The design...was very much inspired by the local context of the gallery space," says Hwang. "When you look out the windows [of the gallery] you can see some incredibly beautiful exterior ornamentation...that seems to frame your view of the exterior. So I designed an adaptation of this ornament as part of the pattern that I created for the window 'renovation.'"
If "Habitat Wall" recontextualizes Hwang's work with urban “pests” and "No Crash Zone" is a realization of her current interests, then “Habitat Mapping" offers a view of the future.
“The Expanded Campus: Habitat Mapping at SAIC” streams surveillance footage of animal sightings throughout the SAIC campus and invites the public to pin their own animal sightings onto an interactive map. Hwang consulted with SAIC maintenance and security as well as biologists to identify potentially inhabitable spaces on the SAIC campus and set up a network of “camera traps.”
Hwang says “No Crash Zone” is just the starting point for this research. "I am very interested in how animals inhabit the city, and have been thinking about finding ways to document these conditions for quite some time. This is a first iteration of what I see as a continuing exploration. "
Hwang will have another opportunity to advance her work this spring as a resident in the MacDowell Colony, one of the nation’s most esteemed artists’ colonies. Here she will incorporate ideas from all three prototypes into a speculative cabin designed for human-animal cohabitation.