LANGUAGE OF THE ANTHROPOCENE
Tiny houses and great cathedrals, carbon-neutral skyscrapers and Airstream trailers: architecture is among the greatest of human crafts. Just imagine if the same ingenuity and vision were devoted to building homes for animals.
By Brandon Keim
Such is the promise of habitecture, defined by author J.B. MacKinnon as “the integration of habitat for other species into structures designed for human purposes.” He’s not the first to use the word; before its popularization in The Once and Future World, MacKinnon’s 2013 opus on humankind’s evolving relationship to the rest of nature, it appeared at least twice before. It turned up in a mid-1970s white paper discussing housing in rural Africa, and later in an early-2000s essay celebrating buildings designed in harmony with their landscapes. MacKinnon’s version of habitecture, however, made animals rather than humans the clients.
Among the examples he cited were the 15th-century builders of Scotland’s Rosslyn Chapel, who carved ornate stone beehives into its pinnacles, and European nobles who’d once built shelters for doves into their homes. More-modern projects included artist Gitta Gschwendtner’s 160-foot-long wall of stone bird and bat houses, erected beside a new housing development in the United Kingdom’s Cardiff Bay, and Adam Kuby’s ultraviolet radiation-blocking salamander pavilions.
Though “putting out the welcome mat to other species remains a curiously radical concept,” wrote MacKinnon, it fits a Zeitgeist of enthusiasm for urban ecology and wildlife, of celebrating nature’s possibilities not only in obviously nature-y places but also in our midst. It’s also practical. After all, even when people build without thinking of animals, the critters still come: house sparrows dwell in traffic lights, raccoons in chimneys, rats and pigeons just about everywhere. So why not design with them in mind?
In doing so, habitecture offers an important corrective to other twenty-first-century environmental trends. Even as nature-mindedness goes mainstream, discussions about sustainability largely focus on renewable energy and recycling and tend to overlook animals. Joyce Hwang, an architect at the University of Buffalo and designer of bird- and bat-sheltering habitat walls, calls that habit a “gap in the logic of sustainability.”
“It leaves out a whole realm that is critical,” says Hwang, and also reinforces the idea that wild animals making homes in our own environs are intruders. The narrative is one of conflict mitigation rather than mutuality, pests rather than neighbors. Habitecture turns that around. “It’s overcoming that physical divide between us and them, between us and the life around us that we’ve placed at arm’s length,” says Tim Beatley, a sustainability professor at the University of Virginia and founder of the Biophilic Cities movement. “It’s embracing that life. Everything we do in cities should contribute to creating habitat.”
To Beatley, habitecture is specifically about buildings. To others, it encompasses anything that’s constructed. For much of the past year, for example, I’ve lived near an engineered stormwater retention pond that filters the street runoff of downtown Bethesda, Maryland, near Washington, DC. The surrounding vegetation was selected to support other species: pollinators, raccoons and rabbits, resident and migratory birds, armadas of swallows who join the pond’s transplanted frogs and fish in keeping the neighborhood mosquito-free. Other landscape habitectures include animal crossings beneath roads and even pollinator strips beside urban gardens.
There are, notes architect Ned Dodington, author of How to Design with the Animal, tensions evident in habitecture’s potential. People tend to play favorites: handsome raptors and colorful songbirds are beloved, but ants and deer mice are a harder sell. And then there’s the friction between aesthetic preference and biodiversity. “There’s this human design impulse to beautify it, to control it, to manicure it in a way that reduces the kind of life that can end up inside,” says Dodington. A heap of shipping pallets stuffed with twigs and bark and roofing tiles makes for a great bug hotel, but it’s not pretty. Dodington, whose most recent project was BioCity, a plywood-and-soil tower installed outside Houston’s Lawndale Art Center, is wary of habitecture that fits too neatly into the pages of Dwell or a West Elm catalog.
Natural structures also tend to surpass our own: far more creatures take sustenance and shelter in an old oak or shagbark hickory tree than in Joyce Hwang’s Bat Cloud, an installation of steel-and-plastic bat houses now hanging in a nature refuge near Lake Erie. Yet if an old tree has its advantages, Bat Cloud has its own. The pods call attention to creatures frequently ignored or reviled; as Hwang wrote in her 2013 essay “Constructing Wilderness,” she wants to “pique curiosity and educate the public.” To create a public presence for wildlife is to help people appreciate it and also to think about the potential of built environments to sustain life. As much as it’s a house, Bat Cloud is also a message.
While spreading that message, habitecture enthusiasts (habitects?) will want to heed lessons learned by earlier advocates of nature-rich communities. Mark Hostetler, a University of Florida ecologist and urban biodiversity specialist who’s consulted on so-called “conservation subdivisions”—not full-blown habitecture, but communities where property developers value and protect biodiversity—notes a tendency to concentrate on design and planning while paying too little attention to what happens as blueprints become messy reality. Support is needed at every level: not just architects, but developers and municipal officials and, crucially, the people who live there. Otherwise, he says, corners get cut. Properties are sold to newcomers who don’t share those values; someone gets careless with their trash, and suddenly wildlife isn’t so welcome. “Unless you have a resident conservationist, things fall apart,” Hostetler says. The most important element in habitecture is, ultimately, people.