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Architect Creates ‘Bat Tower’ at Local Sculpture Park

In addition to providing a home for bats, Joyce Hwang's "Bat Tower" in Griffis Sculpture Park is designed to draw attention to the flying mammals and the dangers they face from white-nose syndrome.

By Charlotte Hsu

Release Date September 7, 2010

A University at Buffalo architect's new project -- a twisted tower designed to house bats at Griffis Sculpture Park -- is raising awareness about the animals and a fatal disease threatening their population in the Northeast.

Joyce Hwang's "Bat Tower" stands about 12 feet tall, comprising five triangular segments stacked on top of one another and joined by steel bolts. The walls of each segment consist of finished plywood panels arranged in a ribbed, accordion-like pattern, with a narrow space separating each piece of wood from the next. A plywood covering stained with a dark, rust color wraps around the top of the structure. Screws and steel cables hold the pillar together, bracing it to withstand wind or other lateral forces.

The conspicuous design, unusual for a bat house, serves a purpose: Hwang says she hopes "Bat Tower" draws attention to bats and white-nose syndrome, a deadly affliction that has reportedly killed more than 1 million bats in recent years, striking the mammals as they hibernate.

A slide-show video of Hwang's Bat Tower is available at http://bit.ly/cv9hac.

UB architecture students fabricated and assembled many of the tower's parts in the School of Architecture and Planning Materials and Methods Shop.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the disease was first documented in 2006, when a caver exploring terrain west of Albany photographed hibernating bats with a strange, white substance on their muzzles -- a telltale sign of infection. Since then, biologists and adventurers have found sick, dead and dying bats in and around caves and mines as far south as Tennessee and as far west as Oklahoma. More than 90 percent of bats in some hibernacula have died.

"White-nose syndrome is a major ecological crisis," says Hwang, an assistant professor in UB's School of Architecture and Planning. "Bats are animals that people practically consider to be pests, so there is a lack of desire to see them in the environment around us. But bats are a critical part of the ecosystem, and now they are facing this threat."

"Since I was a graduate student, I have taken an interest in the constructive relationships between humans and animals, and how we can shape our environment in a beneficial way," Hwang says. "Bat Tower draws attention to bats by challenging the notion of a bat house being something nondescript that fades into the background."

"Bat Tower" featured prominently in "Pest Architecture," a talk Hwang delivered this June at "Animals and Animality Across the Humanities and Social Sciences," a conference at Queen's University in Ontario. The New York State Council on the Arts funded the project with a $10,000 grant, and the Van Alen Institute, a nonprofit architectural organization, acted as fiscal sponsor.

Hwang is working with Griffis Sculpture Park to plan an early October opening reception. Griffis curator Sarah Fonzi says "Bat Tower" embodies the marriage of art and nature that defines the outdoor museum and nature preserve in Cattaraugus County: "We are thrilled," Fonzi says, "to have a sculpture that is both exciting and brings awareness to our visitors."

Caves, with their long, seemingly endless hollows, were the inspiration for "Bat Tower," which Hwang compares to a vertical cave. The structure's many tight spaces are ideal for bats, she says.

She and collaborators, including UB students, fabricated and assembled many of the tower's 400-plus plywood parts in the School of Architecture and Planning Materials and Methods Shop before installing the shelter at Griffis in June. At the base, Hwang and students planted chives, oregano and other herbs in an effort to attract the insects the flying mammals love to eat.

"Bat Tower," a permanent installation, sits adjacent to a pond, a site Hwang selected with the late Simon Griffis based on recommendations by UB biologist Katharina Dittmar de la Cruz. The location appears to be ideal: During a trip to Griffis in August, Hwang says, one of her student assistants reported seeing bats emerging from the tower at dusk.

Though Hwang does not have concrete plans for building more bat houses, she hopes "Bat Tower" will be the first in a series. She and collaborators will continue visiting Griffis periodically to see how the shelter fares over time and through different seasons.

The research will help Hwang improve upon design and construction. She is working on proposals for two additional structures designed to encourage bat habitation: "Pest Wall," a new type of wall construction that would house bats and other "pests," and "Pest Pavilion," a freestanding building whose roof would make an ideal home for bats.

Hwang's collaborators on "Bat Tower" included Sergio López-Piñeiro, Angela Wu and UB students Thomas Giannino, Michael Pudlewski, Laura Schmitz, Nicole Marple, Mark Nowaczyk, Dan Dimillo, Matt Bain, Albert Chao, Joshua Gardner, Shawn Lewis, Nellie Niespodzinski, Joey Swerdlin, Matt Salzer and Jake West. Consultants included Dittmar, Mark Bajorek and Dick Yencer. The New York State/United University Professions' Dr. Nuala McGann Drescher Affirmative Action/Diversity Leave Program provided additional support.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.