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A training school for dogs by Eeestudio and Lys Villalba invites the habitation of multiple animals
Pets are not belongings. This has been ruled by a new legal statute in Spain, which as of this January considers these companions as ‘living sentient beings’, and not material goods as they were previously legally defined. This legislative change accompanies an emotional shift that considers pets as members of the family in many aspects. In her book The Companion Species Manifesto, Donna Haraway explains that there is a belief that humans, in their difficulty in relating to other humans, seek solace in the unconditional love of their dogs and, in return, end up loving them like children. However, Haraway points out that this ‘belief in “unconditional love” is pernicious’ and can be abusive to dogs, and also to humans; the false idea that ‘dogs restore human beings’ souls by their unconditional love might be the neurosis of caninophiliac narcissism’, she argues.
This debate is not free of controversy. The role of animals in society is under constant evaluation and the relationship between dogs and humans has varied widely throughout history. Just a few weeks ago Pope Francis called people who preferred to have pets to their own children selfish, blaming them for low birth rates in some parts of the world. A few months earlier, during part of the strictest confinement of the pandemic in Spain, you were allowed out of the house to walk domestic dogs, while children and their parents had to remain locked up in their homes.
Dog training could be considered a practice that invites servitude of animals to the pleasures and comforts of humans. How can we defend the rights of animals and at the same time inculcate in them a doctrine of obedience and submission? But Haraway insists that ‘domestication is an emergent process of cohabitation’, and that ‘dogs and humans construct “rights” in each other, such as the right to demand respect, attention, and response’. Founded in 1995 and with several branches in Spain and the Netherlands, Educan is the largest dog training and behaviour modification company in Europe. The director, Carlos Alfonso López García, explains that the dog’s habitat is also our own – they are adapted to live with us and in our environment, and to do so, humans must exercise responsible guardianship: the first aspect of canine education.
Rather than training dogs directly, Educan trains their trainers; last year the company opened a school for this practice. The building, designed by Enrique Espinosa of Eeestudio with Lys Villalba, is 30km west of Madrid, among a variety of habitats that provide ecological niches for different species – predominantly agricultural land scattered with farm buildings that provide shelter for wildlife. According to López García, the greater the number of ecological niches created by the surrounding environment, the greater the number of rare species. Many birds choose to nest and breed in the area; lesser kestrels are known to nest in the nearby village of Navalcarnero.
‘In contrast to this ecological approach, the building is predominantly metallic and appears to be strictly and consciously artificial’
Espinosa and Villalba were determined to re-establish an ecosystem that has almost disappeared due to the alteration of rural areas by indiscriminate urbanisation and intensive agriculture. That ecosystem is already returning: on my arrival, the low flight of a kestrel welcomes us and introduces us to the building, which can accommodate two dogs, five families of swifts, six families of kestrels and 20 sparrows, as well as other smaller birds and field bats. These species live together and protect the balance of nature: the birds of prey feed on rodents that can destroy crops and other plants, while the bats feed on insects that carry canine diseases and at the same time contribute to the pollination of flowers and plants in their environment. The pursuit, through architecture, of such a complex balance is a commendable effort to an enviable end, going beyond the strict scope of the architect’s traditional role.
Perhaps in contrast to this ecological approach, the building is predominantly metallic and appears to be strictly and consciously artificial. The building proves that there are new ‘natural’ ways of inhabiting – and building – beyond the stereotypes and tropes of ‘nature’. The roof and its structure are achieved thanks to six shipping containers – acquired at low cost because their useful life was exhausted – manipulated and adapted by local tradespeople. This roof in turn rests on concrete walls that used the offcuts from the same containers as formwork. This formwork generates undulating surfaces that expose the scars of its former life in the form of posters and stickers that are transferred from the metal to the concrete: traces of its recyclability and reuse.
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The floor plan is simple and economical, consisting of a large training room and a service strip: a flexible and experimental response to standardised programmatic needs. The simplicity of the plan contrasts with the meticulousness of the details that dot the various indoor and outdoor spaces: micro-perforated metal sun screens, bleachers, wooden furniture CNC-cut to fit the corrugated surfaces, or large sliding doors or curtains that sequence the spaces. The roofs collect rainwater and channel it into large water troughs designed for dogs (and also birds) to drink from – a sustainable water strategy for the building, but also for the care of these animals.
The school’s main programme centres, after all, around the training of dogs, and the design of the building revolves around them. The floors are adapted to the dogs’ feet and joints thanks to an elastomer-based artificial turf, and the windows are placed one metre above the floor level to prevent the dogs from being distracted during training. To avoid the loud echoes and reverberations of barking and to encourage better communication between dog and trainer, the entire interior is lined with high-absorption acoustic insulation pyramids. ‘For us the project is an experiment in many ways,’ Villalba explains. ‘Typologically there are few references, or at least we did not find them.’ With few precedents to refer to, the architects had to spend time investigating and testing which floors were suitable for the pads of canine paws and what internal linings would work with dog noises.
Elsewhere, the architects actively collaborated with bird experts who guided them on the best location, size and distance between nests according to the species they wanted to host; kestrel nests, which tend to face towards the rising sun, were oriented east, while owl nests were oriented west. To the south, along the main facade of the building, large metal letters spell out Educan, their shadows throwing the letters across the facade; the letters, which are hollow, hide bat nests.
Their ambitious experiment started to yield results before the building was even finished; sparrows began to inhabit the edges of the shipping containers during construction work. The holes, which are used by the port cranes to move the containers, were the perfect size for a sparrow’s nest. ‘We understand that there is further exploration to be done,’ Villalba continues, ‘which will come next spring when the nests are inhabited and birds, dogs and humans live together, and we can continue to draw conclusions.’
Buildings must take care of the planet beyond compliance with minimum regulations, which are so often arbitrary and excessively technical. Architecture can challenge rigid imposed regulations to care for our cities. It is here that a ‘nature’ of the artificial appears: an architecture of the non-human animal. Perhaps there is hope that the architect can give back to the planet part of all that has been taken from it.
‘Both dog and handler have to be able to take the initiative and respond obediently to the other,’ Haraway writes. ‘The task is to become coherent enough in an incoherent world to engage in a joint dance of being that breeds respect and response in the flesh, in the run, on the course.’ Haraway teaches us that the relationship between dogs and humans is not so different from the relationship between humans and our environment. We must pursue this mutual respect to make respectful buildings and, in the end, better cities.
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