Published June 19, 2014
Two of our faculty members — Joyce Hwang, assistant professor of architecture, and Mark Shepard, associate professor of architecture and media studies and co-director of the Center for Architecture and Situated Technologies — participated in the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale, the most prestigious architectural exhibition in the world.
Their projects were featured as part of the award-winning U.S. Pavilion, “Spontaneous Interventions: Design Actions for the Common Good,” which investigated the future of the American city through a series of 124 small-scale urban interventions. We sat down with Joyce and Mark to learn more about their research and get their take on this year’s American exhibition.
Q: “Spontaneous Interventions” exhibited 124 socially-minded projects — small-scale, temporary and unplanned — designed to address areas of urban life undermined by conventional practice. What problematic urban situation does your project address, and what solutions does it propose?
JH: My project, Bat Cloud, addresses the condition of habitat loss in cities. As human populations increase and cities develop, we as human beings have been destroying the habitats that support ecologies of animals, plants, and organisms — many of which are extremely beneficial, even critical to our ecosystems. Bat Cloud is located in Buffalo, which is a city that is not currently growing in population. But the issue of habitat loss is still relevant.
In urban environments, city dwellers have a tendency to view most forms of urban wildlife as undesirable. Buildings and other structures are typically designed and constructed in ways to prevent animal inhabitation. Just look, for example, at all of the artifacts that are produced just to keep birds off of buildings: spikes, wires, netting, etc. Bat Cloud proposes a way to create structures that support bat (and other urban wildlife) habitation. It also suggests that these types of structures do not need to blend invisibly into the background (like most bat houses tend to do); rather, they should invoke curiosity, attract visitors and increase awareness of the presence of animals.
Q: This new design ethos is often participatory and open-source. How does your project engage the community in this process of remaking our city?
JH: Bat Cloud engages the community by encouraging them to recognize the value of urban ecologies, specifically in thinking about urban wildlife habitats. The project’s presence in Tifft, as well as in the media, has provoked interest and curiosity from the public. For example, I have received emails from people in Buffalo who — after seeing the project — are now interested in removing bats from their houses in a humane manner (rather than exterminating them), which is already a huge improvement from what typically happens to animals that are considered to be ‘pests.’ Also, I’ve received messages from school children (as far away as Spokane, Washington) who are interested in building something like this in their hometown.
The actual process of ‘making’ Bat Cloud engaged quite a number of UB students and alumni (with special thanks to Sze Wan Li, MArch '12, Architecture BS '09), and also involved collaboration from specialists from several disciplines, including Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Katharina Dittmar. The process of fabricating the project could certainly engage members of the community. As long as there is at least one design professional managing the process, anyone with basic skills in using simple tools and hardware could help put the project together. It has been designed so that the assembly process could be explained and carried out with relative ease and without a lot of specialized machinery.
Q: Spontaneous Interventions — in fact, this year’s entire biennale — reflects a sense of optimism about the power of the architect and designer to effect change by deploying unconventional tactics that create more meaningful, accessible and sustainable places. Do you agree? How do you see this movement happening around you — here at our school and in Buffalo?
JH: There are many examples of this movement happening in Buffalo. Generally speaking, I think that Buffalo provides a great urban landscape for these kinds of small-scale experiments. Its abundance of underused or vacant properties allows architects to find opportunities for intervention. Its socio-economic climate forces us to confront difficult questions — for example, how we construct cultural values, given our tendencies toward consumption.
Small-scale interventions have been a ‘mode’ of operating among many faculty members for quite some time. Brad Wales’ ‘Small Built Works’ projects, Frank Fantauzzi’s work over the last decade, as well as projects by Mehrdad Hadighi and Shadi Nazarian stand out as examples. There are many recent examples, as well—from the design-build studio work in our architecture program to the efforts of faculty, students and alumni. As part of our “Beyond Patronage” symposium (see page 16), I organized an exhibition titled “Reconstructing Practices,” which featured projects by local architects and designers along these lines. The “Hive City” Habitat Design Competition is a great example of how a small-scale intervention can introduce excitement and change in how we define productively working in the city. The thesis project by two recent MArch graduates, Matthieu Bain and Andrew Perkins — “Dwelling on Waste” — is another poignant example. Dennis Maher’s work looks anew at demolition debris and unwanted artifacts. Sergio Lopez-Pineiro’s snow landscape project asks us to creatively rethink both standard snow plowing practices as well as ways of occupying an underused parking lot.
Q: Can you take a moment to share with us the origins of your project, and how this work emerged? What are future directions for this research?
JH: As a graduate student at Princeton University, I took a seminar which focused on relationships between architecture and biology, taught by Professor Catherine Ingraham. Later in graduate school for my MArch thesis project, I designed a ‘Zoological Laboratory’ — that is, a project that cross-bred the program of a Zoo with that of a Genomics Lab. Both of these experiences urged me to grapple with the conflicting logics between nature and culture, which have profoundly influenced the way I think about the work I am doing now.
I would also say that living in Buffalo has really affected the way I have been developing my current projects. In Buffalo, it is hard to not notice the abundance of urban wildlife all over the city. For example, birds build nests not only in trees but also in ‘unmaintained’ buildings. Areas that seem like ‘abandoned’ tracts of land can also be seen as wildlife refuges. Yet, there is still much discomfort and anxiety among city dwellers regarding urban animals, and the possibility of ‘infestations.’ Partially in response to this sentiment, I am developing a series of projects that aim to incorporate wildlife habitats into the built environment and bring visibility to their presence. Bat Cloud is the second installation in this series.