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Animal infrastructures: building across species

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Human systems have made use of other species for millennia, but spatial interspecies collaboration is integral to both human and non-human futures on this planet

Infrastructure as interspecies collaboration has a long history. The etymological origins of the word ecology, in the Greek oikos, refer to the household. This ancient, architecturally driven definition of ecology opens up the possibility to think about the lived environment as a space where nature meets culture and, in particular, where infrastructure meets the non-human.

We have been using other animals as infrastructure for a long time: messenger pigeons started carrying missives in 3000 BCE in Egypt and went on to become tools of war in 19th-century military communications. Until 1986, British coal miners descended into the dark caves of the mines with caged canaries, who functioned as natural carbon monoxide sensors because of their high sensitivity to poisonous gases. This habit began around 1911, when miners started relying on these animals to evacuate mines before lethal poisoning: if the canary keeled over, it meant it was time to leave. This practice, which in many ways seems inhumane and abusive, also encompassed broader meanings, with canaries both becoming a metaphor for the fragility of life in the mines, and a companion species on which human life depended.

Pigeon stamp from New Zealand

The Great Barrier Island in New Zealand depended on ‘pigeongrams’ as its only line of communication between 1894 and 1908

Credit:History and Art Collection / Alamy

Relationships of (ab)use are still frequent today, with non-human animals performing as ‘testers’ in several industries such as tobacco manufacture, where they are forced to inhale smoke for between six and ten hours a day. But relationships of use are not necessarily always violent. Feminist philosopher Donna Haraway points out the value of use as a liberating force for these animals. Relationships of use can give them purpose, emancipating their well?being from solely depending on the whimsical love of their human companions.

Other-than-human animals have always inhabited human imaginations, but it was only at the turn of the 21st century, with the boom of animal studies as a subfield in cultural inquiry, that their consideration has radically shifted. Scholars in animal studies have come to bluntly reject human exceptionality as a long-standing philosophical construct, and begun to shift their attention towards the encounter with other species, instead of advocating their separation from the human. A lot of our understanding necessarily shifts when we begin observing our surroundings from this heterarchical standpoint. If humans are no longer above all things, how do we think about the way we inhabit the world together with other forms of life? How do we build broader living communities?

Llamas graving at Chicago O'Hare Airport

A herd of llamas and other grazers maintain the difficult-to-reach corners of Chicago O’Hare Airport

Credit:UPI / Alamy

Christmas Island Red Crabs (Gecarcoidea natalis) crossing closed road, during annual migration, Christmas Island, November 2009.

On Christmas Island in Australia, the annual red crab migration brings roads to a standstill

Credit:Nature Picture Library / Alamy

French philosopher Jacques Derrida writes a curious account on encountering the gaze of his black cat in the bathroom; although he understands nakedness is foreign to his cat, feeling ashamed of being naked in front of them stimulates a deep philosophical inquiry about the trace of non-human animals in the world. Derrida’s reflection on animality and nakedness takes him all the way back to the Edenic fall, upon which humans discovered their own sense of nakedness and therefore separated themselves from ‘the animal’. So if nakedness follows that Edenic fall, the non-human animal and their indifference to nakedness comes before us, concludes the philosopher. Coming after these animals, we follow their trace, their presence. I have come to conclude, from my reading of Derrida, that these animals precede us in radical ways: if we think of their trace as spatial inscription, if we follow these animals like the philosopher presumes, they are our precursors in crafting built environments.

As we become more aware of their presence, the trace of other animals in our surroundings becomes more evident. Though many of us might not encounter them in the wild, invested in their ferocity like hunting communities are, there is no reason to romanticise or fetishise a long?gone proximity with the so-called ‘animal world’. They still surround us, even when their presence may be so mediated that it appears spectral at first glance. We include them in stories to tenderly teach children moral lessons; they comfort us in their role as our pets, and as that dimmed resemblance of pets that are stuffed animals; they are part of people’s diets for those who consume meat and, even for those who don’t directly consume meat, they might be present in the form of eggs, milk and cheese. They are part of our clothes if we wear leather; of our cities and villages if we still use them as a workforce. Non-human animals surround us, even though we have become oblivious to their quotidian presence.

‘Wildlife corridors are structures that help both humans and other animals to cope with the dire conditions of our historical moment, and the consequences of ever-expanding capitalism’

They are also there in more complex, less crystallised ways in the design of the spaces that we inhabit. The idea of posthuman infrastructures points to the somewhat utopian notion of environmental collaboration, a path towards resilient designs that allow us to cope with the dystopian ecological landscapes of the present and the future. Haraway’s reflections lead to the conclusion that to be in a relationship of use is not necessarily a definition of unfreedom and violation; in fact, it can mean we recognise deep value in other-than-human life, and can work in collaboration with it. This recognition of value may mean, among other things, that we follow other animals in the way Derrida taught us. We go after their trace; we learn from their intimate inscription in space to apply it to our own spatial innovations.

Termite mounds offer one of the most efficient models for ventilation systems. Inspired by the building technologies used by these insects in their infrastructure, architects have created efficient passive ventilation systems; in the Eastgate Building – an office complex in Harare, Zimbabwe built in 1996 – Mick Pearce translated his understanding of termite mounds’ ventilation systems into an architectural method. The building uses 90 per cent less energy for ventilation than a conventional building. This climate strategy can also be found in other buildings designed by Pearce, such as Council House 2 in Melbourne, Australia, from 2006. These projects reassign value to termites as an intelligent form of life whose behaviours humans can use and learn from.

Aerial view over wildlife crossing / wildlife overpass / animal bridge / viaduct / green bridge spanning a highway in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany

As human infrastructure encroaches more and more on the habitats of other animals, interventions must be made to, among other things, avoid fatal vehicle collisions; under- and overpasses, like this one in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, enable different species to safely cross highways

Credit:Arterra Picture Library / Alamy

Not just a fashionable trend within sustainable design, biomimicry can be thought of as an ethos; in the midst of greenwashing trends – that offer branding concepts and not always clear ethical solutions – learning and replicating nature’s ways is a real and reflective response. There are contradictions in the sustainable practice of these buildings – including, at least in Pearce’s case, in using materials that are part of large-scale industries of extraction such as steel – but biomimicry as a practice of observance and replication of nature also stands as a mode of co?operation with non-human forces. Though biomimicry might not stand as a response in itself, actively looking at nature to inform the making of spaces and construction of mechanisms is a valuable practice, moving towards resilient infrastructures.

Posthuman infrastructures have been gaining momentum, with non-human animals at the lead, in the face of recurring environmental challenges. For instance, goats have been incorporated as tools to manage increasingly incendiary lands on the West Coast of the United States, working to protect coastal communities from wildfires. These versatile weed-eaters have proven more efficient than herbicides and lawn mowers in the management of grasses and weeds. Besides not disrupting the functioning of ecosystems, they are also much better in reaching steep lands which human technologies have difficulty accessing. Challenging landscapes have also led to the incorporation of a crew of sheep, llamas and goats as the ‘grazing herd’ at Chicago O’Hare Airport.

Billion Oyster Project - oysters reintroduced to the Hudson River

Humans depend on other animals to clean up their mess – oysters, which filter and clean water, have been reintroduced to the Hudson River by the Billion Oyster Project, launched in 2014, reversing a decline begun in the 19th century due to industrialisation

Credit:Rosie Cohe Photography

As the ice of the planet continues to melt, the seas to warm and the tides to rise, the director of the Urban Design Program at Columbia University, Kate Orff, has been developing the Billion Oyster Project, a non-profit that aims to introduce oysters in the waterways of New York to form reefs that can slow the movement of water and mitigate the impact of storm surges. This project is, in a way, ‘mimicking the activity that would be happening naturally in a healthier body of water’, Orff explains. The idea of oysters as living infrastructure – ‘oysterstructure’ – and their potential to dissipate destructive wave energy aims to artificially replicate the way oyster reefs used to exist on the East Coast before their demise due to waste dumping and predatory commercial behaviours. At the same time, it signals a potential future chapter of harmony and sustainability where humans deliberately tackle the environmental crisis by tapping into marine life’s natural course of action.

Sometimes animal infrastructure occurs as seemingly invisible co-operation, and it only comes to the fore when its functioning is somehow disrupted. When, in 2019, the Egyptian government slaughtered pigs as a sanitary measure to contain the spread of swine flu, the invisible labour these animals had been performing in the context of urban landscapes became suddenly evident. Meant to contain the spread of the pandemic in particularly dense urban environments such as Cairo, it became clear that pigs were unofficially performing the task of processing the nation’s waste, and getting rid of them resulted in growing piles of waste in the streets of the city.

Paris Streetscape diorama by Mark Dion

In Mark Dion’s Paris Streetscape, 2017, rats, cats and pigeons scavenge from human detritus

Credit:Mark Dion, La Colección Jumex, México & galerie In Situ – fabienne leclerc, Grand Paris, Photo: Aurélien Mole

Another type of human/non-human entanglement is infrastructure created for other animals: for example, President Biden’s ambitious Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in the US includes clauses to improve migration corridors for wildlife. These forms of infrastructure connect wildlife populations and facilitate their circulation in areas that have been separated by human activities such as the creation of roads. By supporting natural processes and fostering the functioning of healthy environments, these corridors are not only infrastructure for wildlife but infrastructures of resilience; that is, structures that help both humans and other animals to cope with the dire conditions of our historical moment, and the consequences of ever-expanding capitalism. The bill aims to provide the US with the resources needed to reduce non-human and human fatalities and injuries produced by wildlife-vehicle collisions, repairing ecosystems that depend on communication between species and their migrations, and the preservation of landscapes.

The dramatic impact humans have on the Earth’s systems confronts us with the urgent need to develop new methods to cope with the new reality. Like most disciplines in this context, architecture and design are trying to re-imagine their role as events unfold. Theorists and practitioners are attempting to fathom an adaptable definition of their disciplines as it becomes clear that if humanity can become a geological force, other ontological and metaphysical conceptions can – and must – shift in the process. In this context, the idea of posthuman infrastructures signals a world beyond the human, and a need for other-than-human solutions. Drawing from the original understanding of ecology as oikos or the household, posthuman infrastructures allow us to think about the role of non?human animals as active co-creators of space. It evokes collaboration, entanglements and spatial modes of kinship with non-humans in the crafting of more sustainable built environments.

Lead image: Pigeons have been in the service of people for centuries – in Cappadocia in Turkey, dovecotes carved into the rock in the 19th and early 20th century allowed humans to harvest guano for fertiliser. Credit: Joan Gravell / Alamy

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