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Making Architecture Better for Animals

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For architect Joyce Hwang, designing animal-friendly structures is part of sustainability

Paige Vickers

Welcome back to The Architect's City, a monthly series inviting an emerging architect to reimagine an existing structure in his or her city, submitting a speculative proposal for Curbed readers. This month, architect Joyce Hwang discusses wildlife and sustainability in Buffalo.

Joyce Hwang is an architect, but for the last 10 years the structures that have interested her most are not meant for human use. She’s been focusing, instead, on building structures that make urban areas friendlier places for city-dwelling wildlife and creatures that are just passing through.

She sees the lack of urban animal habitats as "gaps in the logic of sustainability," she explains. "When we think about sustainable design, we think of renewable energy, green infrastructure, solar panels. But there’s a lot missing in thinking about how the world is not purely anthropocentric."

With her Buffalo-based firm, Ants of the Prairie, Hwang has built a habitat wall for birds, bats, and other flying creatures and pests that resembles a giant geometric pipe organ. She’s also constructed bat habitats in the form of the modern-meets-medieval-looking Bat Tower and the hanging pods of the Bat Cloud, both made in collaboration with biologist Katharina Dittmar and structural engineer Mark Bajorek. Her work, which has been installed in New York, Chicago, Rotterdam, and elsewhere, asks how human-made structures can fulfill not only their structural and aesthetic requirements but also become living membranes for non-human creatures. It’s earned her recognition as one of the New York Architectural League’s 2014 Emerging Voices.

When she moved to Buffalo in 2005, Hwang noticed the walls that hid certain local establishments like veterinary clinics or lumberyards, and the broad, 50’-100’ setbacks that cushioned buildings that held, say, an auto shop or an ice plant. She saw the abandoned manufacturing buildings of South Buffalo, relics of the city’s industrial past, interspersed with still-active structures. Punctuating it all were vast tracts of empty space, no-man’s land created by zoning requirements. As an avid runner, moving slowly on ground level through her new surroundings, she also noticed the animals that seemed to converge around and on those empty spaces. Because no one claimed ownership for these unused pockets of space, they attracted not only animals, but also trash, parked cars, and more.

What if, she wondered, the zoning regulations that had created these setbacks and urban gray areas could be used to provide crucial habitat for Buffalo’s animal species? "Generative Zoning is a project that looks at ways to try to understand zoning conditions and other regulations in cities and find ways to mine them to find ecological and spatial possibilities that we might not necessarily think about up front," she explains.

Buffalo’s zoning regulations require a boundary between manufacturing activities and residential areas. They also require that a great number of buildings, ranging from pool halls to dry cleaners to any industry that works with stone, be entirely enclosed structures with windows that can’t open. Though the city’s code is currently being rewritten, these conditions likely won’t change much. Which isn’t a bad thing: Hwang sees all of these aspects of the city’s code as opportunities.

"There are many ways that you could think about how one could use property that can’t be built on, especially if it’s all happening within an area or in a row," she says. "Habitat fragmentation is an issue."

Hwang and her team began by mapping out the existing city and tracing out where current conditions might offer pockets of particularly fruitful land. Near a series of existing city parks, the setbacks become an expansion of green space. Stationary walls along an existing series of setbacks could be lined with vertical habitats. A cluster of setbacks could similarly feature angular, modern habitat walls, or be linked to provide expansive new territory. Hwang traced "desire lines" (faint, thin green lines on her map) where the slightest of interventions might unite a setback or two.

"It could be as simple as planting trees," she says. "Say you want to defragment some habitat. Between boundary line a and b there’s a vacant parcel, so let’s plant some trees so birds can live there."

Walls offer yet more opportunity. A windowless wall could be clad with the overlapping wood of a habitat wall, as could walls with windows that can’t open. One of the first questions Hwang gets when addressing the placement of habitat walls on a building’s exterior is "what if I want to open the window?" If the window is stationary, the point is moot.

Buffalo is in a major bird migration corridor. So Hwang’s generative zoning would impact the city—"you’d have more birds, more pollinators, depending on types of plants and trees, more vegetation," she says—and its impact would also spread quickly. Birds, bees, bats, and other ‘pests’ that provide the essential functions of a healthy ecosystem would thrive. As not only the importance of flying species to our human endeavors but also avian intelligence is more widely understood, an easily-implemented, scalable plan—generative zoning could be a city-wide enterprise or a community-led endeavor, undertaken by neighborhood associations and corporate owners of fallow land—is logical.

In a way, Hwang’s plan isn’t animal-centric at all. Really, her plan is to poke tiny holes in the stiff perimeter between humans and animals in cities. "My biggest fantasy is that people really start to re-conceptualize what the exteriors of buildings could be, that it’s not ‘here’s my building and there’s nature 10 feet away,’" she explains. "A building is not an enclosed hermetic thing, but part of the landscape. It’s roof gardens, green walls, habitats. It would change not just streetscape but urban landscapes significantly."