A version of this article is scheduled to be published in: “The Cross-Species Design Imperative,” Lexicon der Mensch / Tierbeziehungen. Ed Arriana Ferrari, Klaus Petrus, July 2014.
Cross-Species Design Imperative,
A Species Bias
The historical link between animals and architecture is as long and as old as society. From its early beginnings, evolving out of the agrarian huts of early human societies, architecture has been silently devoted to managing human and animal life (McHenry 2009). It has been used to delimit animal spaces, control animal life and reinforce anthropocentric values from a dominant species onto the world at large. Architecture’s main function — other than to keep the rain off our bodies and regulate temperature — is to manage life. Buildings are constructed for various functions and rooms within them for particular activates. Aesthetics aside, at its core architecture determines which animals belong where and how they should live (including the animals who build the architecture) all the while reinforcing our human cultural and societal values about what it means to be our kind of animal (i.e. human). Cross-Species design collaborations, recognize that the production of architecture no longer needs to operate along species lines. Our daily human existence is no longer burdened by a pre-occupation with species differences, in fact the very opposite is true. Not only are we daily confronted with scientific discoveries about the human-ness of our animal friends – suggesting that many of us are not quite as “human” as we would like to believe, but that our long-term survival on this planet is intimately tied to the long-term survival of other species, and will most likely depend upon it. This essay, and the work of Animal Architecture and many other artists and organizations seeks to call our attention to the speciesist bias inherent in architectural production and then to offer some thoughts to an alternative path forward. Towards this end I will speak today about some of the more biologically inclusive practices currently underway in the world today and stress the importance of a biologically synthetic design practice in all of our, now post-human, endeavors and we continue to shape and reshape the planet.
Architecture and the Control of Life
For the early human, architecture was as much about protection from predators as it was about agriculture and the control of life (McHenry 2009: 265). Architecture and agriculture arrive in human history at roughly the same time. Farming is only a viable method of food production for stationary civilizations and as a society grows it outstrips available herding and foraging resources. The local human population is then left with the choice to relocate, following a nomadic life with temporary and portable structures, or to begin to control the food sources around them and to develop agricultural and more permanent shelter. Roughly 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, agricultural pens/sheds/fences and human huts/sheds and houses began to arrive in some early human societies and since then, agriculture and architecture have continued to progress in near lock-step (Gascoigne 2001). So, though largely unacknowledged as such, architecture has had a considerable history in mediating the relationship between human-life and animal-life. This could be in the form of protection against predation, as mentioned above, or it can be in the simple distinction between those who live indoors and those outside. In the United States and in most western societies the number of species allowed in the home is fairly small and limited to humans, small dogs, cats, some birds, a few selected rodents, a variety of fish, amphibians and reptiles. This has changed through time and culture, and in other parts of the world the range of species can vary dramatically. However more importantly, more critically, and more dangerously, architecture is still the dominant tool used in the production of agriculture and husbandry around the world: pens, barns, coops, and slaughterhouses. Thus, we find that animal control is still a major component of the history of architecture — even to this day — and now, perhaps seen as an unfortunate one.
But the heretofore negative relationship between architecture and animal-life can be corrected. The exclusion of non-human animals from the production of architecture, and even to an extent our own homes, is no longer necessary and furthermore a continued exclusion may be detrimental to our survival — globally. Moreover, a failure to actively involve other animals into our built world is not only detrimental to our environment but no longer reflects the current humanist world-view. The fact is that the metaphysical place of human-kind is also in a precarious state. Philosophic, scientific, ethical, and social boundaries – boundaries that have historically kept us within our clearly defined species-spaces — are fraying at the edges and merging into one another. The truth is that we are no longer simply human, and they are no-longer simply animals but we are all – all of us, all life – is becoming something more, something multiple (Wenner 2007).
Less Diverse, Less Human
Ironically however, as we move away from a singular definition of humanism, our homes and cities are becoming less and less ecologically diverse. Our cities, now home to the majority of the human population, are losing biodiversity at precipitous rates (McKinney 2002). Species that were once thriving in synanthropic relationships to humans (bats, mice, insects, bees, some birds, larger mammals) are increasingly pushed-out, actively exterminated, and reduced either by over-farming, the increased presence of pesticides, lack of green-space or by overly-selective planting. The simple reality is that we don’t just need to preserve selected endangered species but that we need many other animals to live among us in order to maintain a healthy ecosystem (Naeem et al, 1999). The growing realization is that we humans have always been inextricably entwined with our environments. It is only that we somehow forgot (or willfully ignored) this reality and now find ourselves in a precarious environmental and post-humanist situation. The full story of how we’ve arrived at this place would most likely require a detailed explanation of human history – too long for this talk — but it has much to do with the way we live and to architecture’s relationship to animal-life.
Regardless of architecture’s negative history of animal control, there is yet a deeper connection between architecture, humans and our myriad companion species. The good news is that architecture as a practice , is for better or worse, at its core, an extension of the earth and therefore already connected to the life around it. It is literally and figuratively, at its foundation, connected to and engaged in a relationship with our synanthropic friends. The question now is how to shape and improve the quality, color and caliber of that relationship. Architects and designers will debate this point, but if we speak honestly about architecture we are talking about a kind of materiality – an objectness that under any circumstance will ultimately be manifest in material and most usually on the earth (occasionally this is not true). It is this rootedness in an earthly materiality that can provide a common point of connection among animals, inviting cross-species collaborations.
A New Relationship To Life
Architecture, like the soil to the flower, must participate in life while not necessarily having to itself be alive. It must be involved deeply and broadly in life and living processes just as water, minerals and air, are all necessary elements for life and living, yet ultimately themselves inanimate. This relationship-to-life, or relationship-WITH-life, where architecture is conceived as the ground-work, the foundation, the back-drop, the nutrients, and the support for animate life is the conversation that we should be having. Too often our built objects are discussed in isolation from their environmental context. I would actually argue that this is more of a symptom of our own anthropocentrism, where its really no surprise that we discuss and conceive of our realities as distinct from the world around us, because we – ourselves, do not view ourselves as immanent agents in ecology – we are always presuming to be on the outside… But more on that later.
The works of major modern thinkers and philosophers have outlined the ethical and philosophical boundaries for this conversation. Jacob von Uexkull famously imagined the world through the perceptive lens of a woodland tick in his “Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans;” (Uexkull: 1934) Donna Haraway has written extensively on the lives of non-human companion species in her “When Species Meet;” (2008) and Cary Wolfe (2010) in “What is Posthumanism” critiques the moral, ethical and philosophical boundaries of our of humanist thought. Derrida, Heidegger and many others have delineated the boundaries of philosophical discussion in this field. What we need now are inventive and sensitive designs and more importantly designers, artist, architect and politicians to transform this theory into practice.
Animal Architecture, now known as The Expanded Environment, is an ongoing investigation into the performative role of design in ecology. The project operates on the edge between humans and our surrounding “others” — illuminating alternative ways of living with nonhuman animals, discussing cross-species collaborations, and defining new frameworks through which to discuss biologic design. Most basically, within the context of animal design practices The Expanded Environment is interested in answering two questions posed here – “what does architecture mean to another species?” and “how does that new understanding reshape our own human architectural practice?” We go about investigating these questions by examining the field of cross-species design. On AnimalArchitecture.org one can find projects about bat-towers, bird-bricks, insect hotels, oyster-reefs, wildlife preserves, living structures and even a guest-house made by a cow. Each of these projects reflects a growing movement within the design-world that seeks to reinvent our own sense of humanity and reinterpret the way we humans interact with our companion species. Taken as a whole, The Expanded Environment presents publicly, for the first time, a curated, organized collection of works demonstrating powerful collaborations between human and non-human architects. More than simply an exercise in design however, these project have the potential to redirect how we build and live in a dynamic and diverse world.
In surveying the over 200 animal architecture projects online, the vast majority present a kind of alternate-reality or near-reality world-view. The projects suggest that not much of our world would need to be altered to effect significant positive change in the lives and habitats of our eco-cohorts. While there are many different projects on the website in general three basic groups of projects can be discerned: Synanthropic Habitats, Soft Structures and Post-Animal Alternate Realities. Each of these sets of projects define and explore in their own ways what it means to design across species lines.
Synanthropic Habitats propose scenarios where animals and humans live closely together in cross-species cities or abodes – they are the projects that most often come to mind when one thinks of Animal Architecture. They are Bird Scrapers, Hive Cities, Feral Cities, Pest Walls, OysterTectures, Animal Estates, and The Truffle among many others. In general they suggest a shared design scenario whereby both the human and animal inhabitants, be they bats, oysters, or birds share in a kind of urban, occasionally residential co-habitation. They are the most numerous design proposals on Animal Architecture.
Soft Structure projects however, rather than emphasizing a design solution for other animals, generally seek to weaken or reduce the negative impacts from human architecture. Soft Structures offer a different set of strengths and weaknesses. The underlying assumption is that rather than design specifically for alternate animal life as we saw in the Synanthropic projects, the best strategy is to minimize detrimental human habitation. These projects also tend to operate on the scale of landscape architecture, megastructures, large urban agriculture, or infrastructural projects.
Lastly, Post-Animal Alternate Reality Projects (PAARP) – seek to alter the mind-set about human/animal interactions and related speciesist power-struggles. With a near total absence of architectural implications, the PAARP achieve their interventions through focused art installations, public relations work, and even 3D virtual reality sensorial experiences that obliquely influence the way we live. Each of these types of projects, Synanthropic Habitats, Soft Structures, and Post-Animal Alternate Reality Projects, posit distinct design scenarios for living with non-human counter-parts and each makes certain assumptions about human/animal perspectives and where the bulk of the work and intervention should occur. All of them radically redefine current architectural practices and the discipline at large.
An analysis of each group of projects is not possible in the space allowed here but in general each project desires to achieve a living-state most accurately described by Donna Haraway (2008: 42) as Cospecies Coshaping – the reciprocal and intertwined layers of being and becoming across species. This ideal state describes the foundation and aspiration for much of the work, explicitly or not, on The Expanded Environment. But it does not fully explain the imperative to do so.
The cross-species design imperative, first and foremost is a logical next step in the larger environmental movement. After decades of conserving energy and preserving environments, The Expanded Environment invites designers to become pro-active, shifting language from mere “conservation” and “responsibility” to “engaging” and “activating” those environments and the biological agents within them. Clearly, there are design strategies that can serve as inspiration for architectural endeavors, but our interests lie in the benefits to partnering and co-opting the design practices of our companion species, exploring resilient structural systems, redefining sustainability and looking at soft-systems of cohabitation.
This new radically inclusive cross species design would have the potential to completely redefine not only our homes, cities and countries but would necessarily precipitate a transformation of the species now known as Human. Our newly rekindled awareness of the animals around us and our place in the world would ensure that there would be no chance for us to remain the same. In short, we would — evolve. We already know that in this new world there would be some foreseen and unforeseen benefits. We already rely heavily on a multitude of animals for food production – bees that pollinate our crops, the worms that fertilize our soils, and the plankton that produce oxygen and food sources for most of the life in the sea. In addition to food sources, exposure to non-human animals has been proven to increase the strength and resilience of our immune systems and then there are symbiotic health benefits where – mosquito-eating bats keep malaria at bay and urban predators (owls, eagles and hawks) keep other smaller rodent animal populations in check without chemical or mechanical means. This is to say nothing of the fact that we simply do not fully understand the implications of dramatic species loss. Most certainly there are myriad unknown externalities that come with low biodiversity. When put into these terms the project and the future can seem overwhelming and impossibly bleak. But in reality the question before us is simple. Our presence on the planet, in this history of this third rock from the sun, is at this time an anomaly. It has existed for billions of years without us and will do so again, just fine without us. Our demise will only be morned by ourselves, and one could imagine celebrated by many other animals, cockroaches for example. And global environmental change is here, it’s no longer a problem for tomorrow. We will be forced to evolve. The issue is really about the difficulty and pain of our evolution. I would argue for strategy of mediated transition where ever possible.
The work of The Expanded Environment, and the artists, architects, thinkers and designers on its pages attempt to illustrate, and often demonstrate our transition into a future world. But at the core, each of the projects is about recognizing that we are not alone in the world. Ethically, the message is about coexistence and tolerance – in practice it’s about expanding “architecture” to no longer address only one species of life, but to encompass the global needs of the humanimal population.
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