Wednesday, January 11, 2012


Making native animals feel at home again

Kat Austen, CultureLab editor

(Image: Ken Adlard/Arup)

How would you design a city to make a stag beetle happy? What types of buildings make a peregrine falcon feel at home?
These are the types of questions inspired by artist Fritz Haeg’s initiative Animal Estates. Now in its eighth iteration after travelling around seven US cities, Haeg’s headquarters is now the London-based architectural engineering firm Arup.
The central idea of the project is to treat native animals as clients, much like human stakeholders in development projects. In each incarnation, Haeg consults with local experts to identify client species, looking at their history and prevalence in the city in question. “We ask, who are the animals that used to live on this territory before humans occupied it…and which of them could we cohabitate with in a city? Then, which ones need architecture that’s no longer there for them?” In London, there are 11 different species of animal client, from hedge hogs to bats.
Once these have been identified, Haeg and the local participants set to the task of refining the architecture to accommodate them: “An example is cavities in a dead tree,” he explains. “If there are no dead trees, there’s no place for the animals to go. So a lot of the animal architecture you see is creating surrogates for that kind of space - like nest boxes.”
Though each incarnation of Animal Estates starts off the same way, they evolve very differently according to the location, says Haeg. Since October last year, Arup has given over part of its glistening glass and steel foyer to Animal Estates, an incongruous, ramshackle, pallet-strewn space behind a temporary, wood-fronted desk. There are desks equipped with computers, notebooks and species-specific research paraphernalia and exhibits of neat ways to encourage city-wide biodiversity, such as insect hotels and pocket habitats - felt plant pots seeded with wildflowers intended to evolve without intervention. The space also contains a library, one wall of which is covered with a map of London, where visitors are encouraged to mark any animal sightings.
In designing this biodiversity war-room, Haeg and Arup curator Jennifer Greitschus were eager to use sustainable materials, so most of the furniture is begged or borrowed. The plaster boards, for example, were donated by a spent exhibition at The Architecture Foundation. Also on loan are the pallets, which house a tiny pond, and serve as a seating area for audiences who attend evening workshops and events themed around the city’s animal clientele.
In late October, the one-day workshop Insect City featured University College London scientists Mark Carnall and Matthew Gandy and examined the relationship between insects and cities, an important aspect of measuring and mitigating human effects on the environment. (Carnall is also curator of London's Grant Museum, which is home to all manner of zoological specimens.) Last week, Mark Job, a senior landscape architect at Arup, filled us in on the regeneration of Beam Parklands in Dagenham, London. One of the project’s aims was to increase native animals and habitats, such as acid grassland and great crested newts, along with benefitting the surrounding human inhabitants, thereby reducing crime in the area. The last event on 16 January will be dedicated to everyone’s favourite sensitive creature, bees, but before then there will also be talks devoted to swifts and general biodiversity tactics.
Haeg acknowledges that Animal Estates might seem like an advocacy project, but he says he sees it more as a place to raise questions that might not otherwise be asked. Namely, do we want to incorporate more wildlife in our cities?
The traditional boundaries between city and countryside are becoming increasingly blurred, he says, and while he is careful to let participants in the project make up their own minds, he has a very certain view of our shared future. “The only realistic way to move forward is to consider the wilderness aspects of cities, then acknowledge that there’s no wilderness left.”

Animal Estates runs at Arup in London until 20 January.

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