“Ants act as individuals and as part of a super-organism,” says Joyce Hwang, AIA. That’s also how she sees architects’ role in designing the built environment—distinct yet connected. In 2004, Hwang, who got her B.Arch. from Cornell University, founded Ants of the Prairie in Buffalo, N.Y., a quirky, innovative research and design shop with the aim of “confronting the pleasures and horrors of our contemporary ecologies.” She has built her practice around finding ways to incorporate animal habitats into urban areas and projects, helping to stabilize landscapes for bees and other threatened species. Her Bat Tower design—she hopes the concept will soon dot the rooftops of Manhattan—and other experiments with bat housing helped her win a 2014 Emerging Voices Award from the Architectural League of New York.
Now an associate professor of architecture at the State University of New York’s Buffalo campus, Hwang spent the formative years of her career entering competitions—for the High Line and a proposed American Museum of Slavery—and also worked for Carlos Ferrater and his Office of Architecture in Barcelona.
On working abroad: “One of my first assignments at Cornell was to draw my favorite building, and I drew the Sagrada Família. I’ve always loved Antoni Gaudí, and when I graduated, after a few years in San Francisco, I moved to Barcelona. There I worked for Ferrater, on a competition for the extension to the Barcelona airport. In the U.S., I have never felt ownership of a project the way I did working on the airport—and I was 24. I told myself if Ferrater’s office won the competition, I would stay in Barcelona and learn Catalan. But we didn’t win.
“I wanted to teach and do research, so I went to grad school at Princeton University. Our orientation day was Sept. 11, 2001. I had Liz Diller for studio that fall, and she had us design 15 million square feet of displaced Manhattan office space. Everyone had a different response. Some people were talking about how to camouflage a building. Some people wanted offices to move to Jersey City, N.J. I came up with a system for assessing real estate based on post-Sept. 11 values—fire escapes, for instance.”
On the High Line competition: “I had just finished grad school, I hadn’t yet formed an office, and I was looking at different competitions when I heard about the High Line. The idea of reusing that infrastructure was phenomenal. Within that surrounding area was such an eclectic mix of businesses—retail, art galleries, body shops. We asked ourselves, if the High Line were repurposed, how would it change the surroundings? Would some occupants have to leave? If gentrification was inevitable, how could you still maintain some degree of difference? And could the High Line be the collector of those differences? We thought that if people could shift their displaced businesses to the High Line, it would become this amazing heterogeneous space.”
On an American Museum of Slavery: “Mastermind magazine, in its first issue, had a design competition for a hypothetical museum of slavery on the National Mall, and I entered. My feeling was that once you commemorate something with a museum, you mark a place for it in history, as if it’s in the past. But slavery is still everywhere, so I designed a museum that would be intensely visible to tourists. We looked at what areas on the Mall are photographed the most, and in our design those are the areas interrupted by this partially subterranean museum, which surfaces above ground as a scar on the Mall.”
On ecology and architecture: “For my master’s thesis I designed a zoo and genetics lab. One reason I became interested in bats and bees is the dependency so many species have on these animals, which are potentially disappearing. What might our future be like without pollination? There are two reasons to be concerned with ecologies as we design. First, we should save this animal because it’s almost extinct—biodiversity for its own sake. Second, we should realize that [if it goes extinct], that could have a profound impact on your life today. How do we think about the inclusion of life in the way we design space? How do we think about life when you think about designing the world? Seeing a million bats fly out at once from under a bridge—those are experiences that are sublime.”
On the Bat Tower: “I was interested in making an urban habitat for bats. There was no funding, so we developed the project in prototype. Then we got a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts to hire students and source material. It was difficult to get Buffalo-based organizations to want big, visible structures that attract bats, so we got in touch with a local sculpture park with a large bat population in East Otto, N.Y., a town outside Buffalo. There’s a pond there—bats like water—and it’s quite humid, with lots of mosquitoes. We wanted a massive presence in the landscape.
“Because we had started the design prior to finding a site, we designed it in modules. The tower is similar on all sides—there’s no front or back, but it has a sloped roof that’s meant to face south, so that it gets more sun. We wanted to produce a vertical cave. We started by researching bat habitats, like attics, and found they can get into very small spaces—vents and cracks half an inch thick. So we used these slotted, plywood pieces. We grooved the surfaces so that bats would be able to cling to them. The exterior skin is dark, so that it can absorb more sunlight and be warmer in the evening—bats like to roost in warm places.”
On collaborating with a biologist: “I walked the grounds with my collaborator, a biologist named Katharina Dittmar, and the head of the sculpture garden. [The head of the garden’s] interests were how picturesque it was; [Dittmer’s] was what kind of habitat it would be. It’s enlightening to see the world through the eyes of another. When you go for a walk with a biologist, you as an architect might be looking at size, volume, spatial sensibility, and she’s looking for animal droppings, signs of habitation. It’s almost like having a consultant, a structural engineer. You start to look at things you didn’t look at before.”