Colorful birdhouses with countless shapes installed in the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens (BBG) perpetuate a thousand-year history of multi-species design. As part of the installation for birds, which opened its doors on June 11, the objects designed by the architect highlight the potential for wider cooperation between us, humans and our animal neighbors. Despite the staggered schedules-the exhibition opened after the mating and nesting season for most birds – the follies still entertain visitors after the end of the cherry blossom season and in the summer, when the roses, the Shakespeare Garden and a garden for hummingbirds are all in bloom. More importantly, they speculate on how humans can better support biodiversity through design.
Participating artists and architects include Tatiana Bilbao, Bureau Spectacular, Steven Holl, landscape architect Walter Hood, Olalekan Jeyifous, Suchi Reddy and SO-IL. Studio Barnes’ pink and fuchsia birdhouse, Fly South, has curved pastel cubing holes referencing Miami architecture, while Nina Cooke’s John’s Oh Robin! abstract robins’ nests as a conceptual installation raised on a pole. Inspired by the friendliness of sparrows, Sourabh Gupta’s weaving forms a common birdhouse composed of a spherical burlap construction with multiple entrances and a shell.
The 33 contestants selected songs to accompany the tracks of a 242-song soundtrack compiled by Randall Poster, a film score accompanist for directors such as Wes Anderson, Martin Scorsese and Todd Haynes. Poster began his birdsong project after quarantine calmed the ubiquitous noise of traffic and industry, inspired by the increased audibility of birds during the recent times. The songs are the most recently written and recorded. Their sounds increase the experience of walking through the vast 52 acres of gardens, making it a game to find the discreet art objects; once found, the QR codes on the exhibition panels evoke descriptions and audio files.
The history of birdhouses dates back to ancient civilizations. Archaeologists have documented multi-storey dovecotes and columbariums in ancient Egypt, Rome and Iran, which worked for bird nests and attracted pigeons whose droppings were used in agriculture. (Between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago, the Pigeon became the first domesticated bird in the world. In India, large birdhouses, called chabutras, were built in the form of a stacked tower. Aside from the chickens, the birdhouses we come across today—in this exhibition or in the backyards-are available in a range of styles and sizes manufactured and sold by specialized birdhouse sellers. The MoMA design store sells a birdhouse that features early Bauhaus architecture; it can be converted into a bird feeder after the mating season. From the point of view of multi-species design, it is valid to ask whether animal houses actually serve them or exist mainly to make people feel good without offering much help.
BBG’s birdhouses range from structures that essentially provide real nesting spaces designed for the needs of certain species to artistic and architectural constructions that convey poignant messages about biodiversity but are not particularly useful for birds. They are best described as follies, A type of enjoyment architecture with its own rich history, dating back to at least the 18th century in the Western tradition. Their use in French and English gardens, often in the form of Roman temples, Egyptian pyramids and Gothic abbeys, were largely status symbols, sometimes with heraldic sculptures of birds and other animals. They served as decorative places to enhance people’s appreciation of nature.
One designer, Joyce Hwang, associate professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Architecture at the University of Buffalo, specializes in the design of multi-species habitats. With his practice Prairie Ants, Hwang has been studying and building animal habitats in parks and exhibitions for almost 20 years. His projects include zoological laboratories, plague walls, bat clouds, beehives, bat towers and niches for “non-charismatic” species that people don’t think about or don’t want to be. (His work was featured in a short video produced for Built Ecologies: Architecture and Environment, a series by MoMA’s Emilio Ambasz Institute for the joint study of the built environment and the Natural Environment. She found early intellectual support for multi-species conceptual thinking in the study of architectural historian Catherine Ingraham, who studied the convergences between architecture and other biological life forms in her 2006 book Architecture, Animal, Human: the Asymmetric Condition. Its birdhouse, in front of our neighbors, is a complex gravel-style structure with multiple shaded ledges.
At a time when architects were absorbed in digital design tools, Ingraham’s works wrote about the tendency to use nature as symbolism or to use biomimicry to repeat forms. Today, our ecological paradigms have changed. Instead of being a source of inspiration for models, the conversations focus on the mass extinction caused by global warming. An approach, supported by the biologist E. O. Wilson, creates intervention-free wilderness areas combined with the design of multi-species wildlife corridors and wild spaces in human settlements.
For Birds opens a space for visitors to think about how we can build in a way that strengthens the natural world to which we belong and on which we depend. Despite the theme of birds, for birds, it’s really up to people to think about birds, rather than the birds themselves. The distinction is significant: while the Environmental Protection Agency protects nature for human use, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service enforces the Endangered Species Act of 1966. Concerns about biodiversity are newcomers to the ongoing conversation about sustainable design. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 launched a movement to reduce agricultural pollution, but there have been few comparable moments of ecological awakening for architects. An example of a product is the campaign to popularize the use of anti-bird glass in high-rise buildings. The reforestation movement, which insists on vast wild spaces within human habitation to shelter other species, is gaining ground in Europe. There is not much to argue that biodiversity should be part of the building code and be included in all planning decisions.
Of course, the expression “for birds” has a double meaning: in the vernacular it suggests that something is worthless or trivial. The BBG show is anything but. Motivated by the current climate crisis, we know that our future depends on what we do for the birds.