Designing buildings for animals has prompted an extraordinary range of responses, from palace to cat flap, which say more about humans than the residents
In the early 1960s, John Lilly – doctor, psychiatrist and inventor of the isolation tank – built a house on the Caribbean island of Saint Thomas in which dolphins and humans could live together. The white, rectilinear, two-storey structure was equipped with a network of pools and channels and even a wet lift that enabled dolphins to swim around the building. The aim, bizarre as it may seem today, was to study how the animals communicated with one another, and from there to learn how humans might converse with them.
Despite gaining the support of eminent ecologist Gregory Bateson, who became director of the laboratory, and NASA, which contributed funding, the experiment went awry. Finding his subjects to be obstinately mute, the increasingly frustrated Lilly injected the animals with LSD and pounded the ground next to their tanks with a pneumatic drill in an attempt to jolt them from their silence. One of his collaborators, Margaret Howe Lovatt, went even further: she formed a bizarre attachment to a dolphin named Peter, with whom she would ‘communicate’ by painting her face white and her lips black so that they resembled a blow hole. She also regularly masturbated the animal.
This is an extreme case of human-animal cohabitation, but sharing space with other creatures has a long history. In fact it is the norm, because as well as the rats and other vermin we habitually live with, the human body itself is composed of more than 50 per cent non-human microbes. To be human is therefore to share space with other species; to build is to build for humans and other animals. Religions acknowledge this fact, whether in the form of the Hindu temple at Deshnoke in Rajasthan, India, swarming with holy rats, or the story of Christ’s birth in a stable. Architectural dogma also makes the association: Vitruvius asserted that humans first learned to build by observing the structures of birds, and ideas like this continue to have currency, for instance in Alison Smithson’s essay on the burrows of Beatrix Potter.
Indeed, it is an everyday matter for humans to share dwellings with domestic pets, and we sometimes modify the structure of our homes to accommodate these animals. Cat flaps are a common manifestation of this proclivity; more unusual is the special room in Eltham Palace for the owner’s pet lemur Mah-Jongg. The latter was also provided with its own passages and ladders to move around the building, and a mural of forest leaves to make it feel at home. This kind of extravagance has caused more than one ruler to come unstuck: Marie Antoinette’s ferme ornée at Versailles was a source of public resentment, and British MP Peter Viggers lost his job after it was found that he’d used public money to buy a house for his ducks.
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And yet, despite our yearning to share their homes, to live like an animal is seen as abject; you’re as filthy as an animal, we jeer, and leave doors open as if you were born in a barn. With this in mind, architecture has intentionally been used as a dehumanising tool: structures of animal captivity, especially cages, have been used to produce racial otherness. African people were frequently displayed this way by imperial powers – as late as 1906 in Brooklyn Zoo.
In a more subtle equation of human otherness and animality, in Buenos Aires Zoo the animals were kept in pastiches of the architecture of their places of origin, so the panda, for instance, had a ‘Chinese’ house, and the elephants lived in an ersatz Hindu temple. The zoo was closed last year due to concerns about animal welfare, and everywhere such facilities are coming under increasing scrutiny as sites of animal maltreatment. Despite the attention of architects such as Berthold Lubetkin, Hugh Casson and Cedric Price, all of whom designed enclosures at London Zoo, these buildings necessarily prioritise the experience of the voyeur over the resident, and all are forms of captivity. Lubetkin’s elegantly spiralling enclosure was recently emptied of its penguins. It showed them off admirably but their feet, it was discovered, were being damaged by the concrete. Is there a way of building better for animals? Or should we not do it at all?
Even if we closed all the zoos, the vast majority of animal enclosures would remain: the barns, sheds and hutches in which we keep the creatures we eat and work with. Since prehistoric times, these have sometimes shared party walls with human dwellings: semi-detached housebarns employ the heat emitted by livestock to help keep the farmer’s family warm at night, and allow the latter to keep an eye on their valuable living possessions.
Such buildings have rarely been given much architectural attention, but there are some grand exceptions. Palladio’s villas had Tuscan-columned barn wings, barchesse, which sometimes housed animals. And horses, the most prestigious animals on the estate, have often been given accommodation more splendid than that of the servants: palatial stable blocks at Chatsworth, Wentworth Woodhouse and Versailles testify to the esteem in which their animal residents were held. Indeed, the most gorgeous building ever made for animals is Joseph Fischer von Erlach’s Winter Riding School in Vienna. The tradition of equestrian architecture has survived the passing of the ancien régime, for instance in Luis Barragán’s ranch at Cuadra San Cristóbal, where horses and their people share interlocking spaces. The keeping of another prestigious animal, the dove, was traditionally regarded as an exclusive droit de seigneur, and ancient dovecotes can be found as far afield as Scotland and Iran. More recently, Oscar Niemeyer built a Modernist example on the public plaza in Brasília: doves for the people.
Dovecote by oscar niemeyer in brasília
For the lowlier farm animals, however, corrugated iron and wooden huts are the rule. Architects have occasionally turned their hands to the type: Soane designed several semi-circular cowsheds, and later there was Hugo Häring’s sublime farm Gut Garkau, as well as yet more cowsheds by Tom Heneghan in Kumamoto and Stephen Taylor at Shatwell Farm. The latter three examples have a somewhat rustic materiality, albeit turned to Modernist abstraction, whereas Andrei Burov designed a gleaming Corbusian dairy for Sergei Eisenstein’s 1929 tribute to collectivisation, The General Line. The building’s white forms evoke the purity of the milk extracted within and the state’s modernising aspirations for a still largely feudal rural economy. But although Burov had hoped to make permanent buildings for the film as a model for future farm construction, the budget never materialised. The resulting set was a kind of Modernist Potemkin village.
The reality of collectivisation was far more brutal, and far less sanitary. And this still goes for capitalist husbandry. Despite corrals having a kind of diagrammatic beauty, generally speaking slaughterhouses and stockyards are, as vegans will never tire of telling us, mechanised instruments of cruelty. They also gave us (so one revisionist argument goes) architectural modernity: the vast meat infrastructure of Chicago’s hinterland birthed the vertical excrescence at its core, a kind of urban metastasis of the railways bringing flesh into the city to match the literal transformation effected in the bowels of its red-meat guzzling denizens.
The question remains: when we build for animals, who are we really building for? With farm animals the answer is obvious, and the fake houses given to pets and zoo animals are an act of transparent and pathetic anthropomorphism – so when we look into their cages, it is ourselves we see looking back. Creepy. But then to attempt a simulacrum of an animal’s own structure – a nest or burrow or hive – seems not only false but doomed. Perhaps Burov had it right, and we should build without sentiment, treating animals and humans alike to the same universalising formalism – but then, the penguins’ feet protest. One thing is certain: although our planetary cohabitants certainly deserve consideration, you don’t want to end up sleeping with the fishes.
Bat Tower in East Otto, New York, USA by Joyce Hwang, 2010
Thanks to human-caused climate change, many scientists argue that the world is entering the sixth mass extinction in its history. Bats are among the species under threat. Over a million have died in the USA, where they have succumbed to a fungal infection, and in the UK, bats are vanishing as they lose their habitats and food supply thanks to non-porous buildings, pollution and pesticides, despite being protected by law. One way to mitigate these problems is to provide roosts that compensate for increasingly inaccessible roof spaces, an unintended consequence of building codes meant to reduce heat loss. These artificial roosts usually take the modest form of boxes, but American designer Joyce Hwang has created a monumental bat skyscraper, which also functions as effective propaganda for the pro-bat cause. Hwang is keen to communicate the beneficial activities of bats, which help pollinate plants and control pests, and her zigzagging wooden tower, its base planted with insect-attracting herbs, broadcasts the presence of these easily overlooked creatures to passers-by.
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Bat tower in east otto, usa by joyce hwang drawings
Elephant House at Copenhagen Zoo, Denmark by Foster + Partners, 2008
Buildings for elephants necessarily curtail the inhabitants’ freedom, as they usually roam around six miles a day across the savannah. However, these animals are also accustomed to a certain degree of warmth and dryness, and so when transplanted to colder climes they need a roof over their heads. This problem was addressed by Virgilio Cestari, who created a fantastic Hindu temple for the elephants at Buenos Aires Zoo in 1904, and more recently by Hugh Casson, who completed the corduroy concrete elephant house at London Zoo in 1964. When Copenhagen Zoo’s 1914 temple-fronted elephant house was deemed inadequate for the needs of the animals, Foster + Partners, who were commissioned to build the replacement, started from scratch, studying the behaviour and requirements of the creatures. Twin domed structures were sunk into the ground, with misters to keep the residents’ hides moist and underfloor heating to prevent trench foot. Outside, a large enclosure with a pool gives them somewhere to stretch their legs. This potted history of the elephant house traces a miniature narrative of architecture, from historicist temples, both of which have been rejected as unsuitable, via Casson’s monumental Modernism, also vacated for safety reasons after one of the elephants trampled a keeper to death, to a less monumental, more animal-centred design. The next step is the elimination of architecture, as zoos are shut down for good.
Elephant house at copenhagen zoo by foster+partners drawings
Equestrian Centre in Melbourne, Australia by Seth Stein Architects and Watson Architecture + Design, 2014
The horse is a noble beast, and as such has sometimes been treated to luxurious quarters, for example by architects as distinguished as Jules Hardouin-Mansart and Johann Fischer von Erlach. (Sometimes, but not always, as those who have seen the film Maîtresse, with its scene set in a horse abattoir, can attest.) Seth Stein and Watson Architecture + Design’s Equestrian Centre Merricks on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula is an impressive addition to this tradition, with its elegantly curved monopitch roof ‘supported’ by four elephantine pillars clad in the same corrugated metal. Beneath the roof is accommodation for six horses, and the rear wall is of monumental rammed earth. At the conclusion of this wall, a spout empties into a shallow pool, from which the horses can drink. The latter touch is a clear reference to Luis Barragán’s Cuadra San Cristóbal, the ultimate in Modernist stabling, but the palette here is far more restrained, the materials being allowed to express their intrinsic qualities.
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Equestrian centre in melbourne, australia by seth stein architects and watson architecture+design drawings
Cowshed in Lignières, Switzerland by localarchitecture, 2005
The cowshed is a humble type that has elicited some surprisingly thoughtful treatments, from Soane’s graceful semi-circular examples to Stephen Taylor’s rustic concrete arch. In this recent example, constructed in the Jura hills of Switzerland, the timber beams traditionally used in local barns are employed to create an unusually complex roof form. Although the resulting volume is strikingly asymmetrical, it lies low against the landscape and is not going to frighten the horses. Beneath the roof is a mezzanine hayloft, and the building’s face is clad with a transparent plastic, treating the 30 resident cows to a view of the valley.
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Cowshed in lignières, switzerland by localarchitecture drawings
This piece is featured in the AR’s April 2018 issue on Reinventing the rural – click here to purchase a copy