Joyce Hwang founded Buffalo-based firm Ants of the Prairie in 2004 as an architecture and research practice “dedicated to developing creative approaches in confronting the pleasures and horrors of our contemporary ecologies,” according to the Architectural League. In her lecture as one of winners of the Architectural League’s annual Emerging Voices awards, Hwang explains her fascination with the conflicted perceptions of urban wildlife, and discusses a series of projects that aim to incorporate diverse animal habitats into the built environment.
Hwang prefaces her work by explaining that processes of urbanization continue to rapidly deplete our cities of biodiversity. Cities have begun to counteract this effect by introducing wildlife corridors, but despite these controlling ambitions, urban wildlife often takes hold in unexpected ways. As a result, we may see these impromptu wildlife habitats in our urban environment as a nuisance. Many of Hwang’s projects explore ways in which these habitats could be made into an integral part of the urban fabric to actually encourage biodiversity. She hopes that these interventions could lead to a shift in public opinion away from our conventional notions of “pests,” making people realize that animals in urban areas could serve an important biological function.
The first strategy in the firm's investigation involved rethinking the ways walls can intentionally emphasize the animal habitation rather than hide it. “Bat Tower,” built in 2010, was the first of a series of small-scale interventions to encourage urban wildlife habitation. Rather than blending into the background, the tower inserts itself into the landscape as a sizable presence with bats inhabiting it during the summer.
Other projects Hwang mentions serve to introduce habitats as artifacts in unusual settings. Their “bat cloud” project is one example of such an intervention, in which various insulating techniques were studied to create an improved follow-up to their “bat tower.” As bats tend to need relatively warm and stable environments, they explored ways in which a construction could be more hospitable to bats throughout the year. The materials used for the project render the “bat clouds” as an unexpected encounter in the woods, provoking public curiosity and awareness.
Through examining existing urban conditions around Buffalo, Hwang explores ways to create a continuous “green infrastructure” throughout the city. Sometimes building codes and zoning restrictions require windowless walls, and Hwang suggests these could present an opportunity for wildlife habitation. By working alongside biologists, they have developed a series of initiatives to monitor natural habitats and productively engage the local urban landscape.
Through a discussion of how the projects were funded, Hwang raises issues of how architecture can move beyond its traditional roles and become an agent for instigating environmental advocacy.