Living on the Edge: Urban Animals at the Margins of Buildings

Ants of the Prairie

Reviewed by Stuart McLean

13 Jul 2016

A bird holds the cap of a plastic bottle in its beak. From security camera footage of the roof of the Columbus Building, School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Courtesy Sullivan Galleries, SAIC

How might urban archi­tec­ture — both exte­ri­or sur­faces and inte­ri­or cav­i­ties — pro­vide hab­it­able (or, at least, non-lethal) con­di­tions for birds, bats, and oth­er wildlife? This project aims to ques­tion our embat­tled notions of the word pest” by bring­ing atten­tion to city-dwelling species that inter­face with build­ings — that is, ani­mals that occu­py the lim­i­nal spaces between inside and out­side, our” world and that of the oth­er.” This series of projects, installed at the Sul­li­van Gal­leries at the School of the Art Insti­tute of Chica­go in 2015 as part of the exhi­bi­tion Out­side Design,” inter­ro­gates the thick­ened space between inside and out­side by address­ing the notion of the building’s edge from the point of view of non-human, urban species.

Screen capture from a Google Map of urban wildlife sitings on and around the campus of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Courtesy Sullivan Galleries, SAIC

Habi­tat Map­ping at the School of the Art Insti­tute of Chicago

Build­ings are occu­pied not only by humans; oth­er ani­mal pop­u­la­tions also thrive in them and are a sig­nif­i­cant part of the city’s ecosys­tem. This project explored how non-human species occu­py build­ings on the cam­pus of the School of the Art Insti­tute of Chica­go (SAIC), focus­ing specif­i­cal­ly on poten­tial­ly inhab­it­able spaces such as build­ing sur­faces and cav­i­ties, spaces in-between build­ings, and oth­er periph­er­al, exte­ri­or areas.

To inves­ti­gate the pres­ence of urban wildlife on the SAIC cam­pus, we ini­ti­at­ed a doc­u­men­ta­tion and map­ping project. Com­bin­ing inde­pen­dent field obser­va­tions on ani­mal sight­ings and poten­tial habi­tats” with advice from both biol­o­gists and SAIC’s office of Instruc­tion­al Resources and Facil­i­ties Man­age­ment, we iden­ti­fied points of inter­est around cam­pus and doc­u­ment­ed them through var­i­ous means. For exam­ple, we strate­gi­cal­ly imple­ment­ed a series of cam­era traps” — sit­u­a­tions designed to cap­ture wildlife in action and used often by both sci­en­tists and hunters — to close­ly mon­i­tor the pres­ence of ani­mal pop­u­la­tions. We also scanned SAIC cam­pus sur­veil­lance videos and culled footage show­ing ani­mal appear­ances around build­ing edges. Over the course of sev­er­al months, we con­tin­u­ous­ly doc­u­ment­ed those sites, as well as oth­er zones along the SAIC cam­pus bound­ary, using man­u­al pho­tog­ra­phy and videog­ra­phy in addi­tion to the tech­niques men­tioned. A com­bi­na­tion of those means shaped a grow­ing col­lec­tion of footage exhib­it­ed at SAIC.

Anoth­er part of that doc­u­men­ta­tion effort was a col­lab­o­ra­tive map launched ini­tial­ly to record ani­mal sight­ings and to devel­op a means of com­ment­ing on the hab­it­abil­i­ty” of spe­cif­ic sites. Exhi­bi­tion par­tic­i­pants were invit­ed to con­tribute obser­va­tions to an evolv­ing research doc­u­ment by pin­ning” loca­tions of their own ani­mal sight­ings and post­ing evi­dence of urban wildlife on campus.

Façade, Art Institute of Chicago, July 15, 2015, 7:30am

Façade, Art Institute of Chicago, July 15, 2015, 3:30pm

Fire escape crows nest, Art Institute of Chicago, July 16, 2015, 3:20pm

<iframe src="" width="640" height="360" frameborder="0" webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen allowfullscreen></iframe> <p><a href="">Ants of the Prairie - Habitat Mapping</a> from <a href="">45Journal</a> on <a href="">Vimeo</a>.</p>
<iframe src="" width="640" height="360" frameborder="0" webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen allowfullscreen></iframe> <p><a href="">Ants of the Prairie: Peeking Pigeon</a> from <a href="">45Journal</a> on <a href="">Vimeo</a>.</p>

Ants of the Prairie, No-Crash Zone, installation view, in "Outside Design," Sullivan Galleries, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 2015. Courtesy Sullivan Galleries, SAIC. Photo: Tony Favarula

No-Crash Zone

The most sig­nif­i­cant cause of bird mor­tal­i­ty in urban areas is col­li­sion with glass. Birds in flight are often unable to dis­tin­guish clear glass from open air, par­tic­u­lar­ly if the glass is reflect­ing sky, trees, or oth­er nat­ur­al ele­ments around a build­ing. Cur­rent­ly, a grow­ing num­ber of orga­ni­za­tions are begin­ning to address this under­ac­knowl­edged killing spree. Bird advo­ca­cy groups such as the Audubon Soci­ety and the Amer­i­can Bird Con­ser­van­cy are spear­head­ing ini­tia­tives by work­ing with researchers to devel­op bird-safe build­ing guide­lines for cities and are pub­lish­ing reports to assist archi­tects, devel­op­ers, and build­ing own­ers make more informed deci­sions about win­dow design. Man­u­fac­tur­ers are begin­ning to pro­duce build­ing mate­ri­als and sys­tems to pre­vent bird col­li­sions, rang­ing from win­dow decals — sim­i­lar to those that we humans deploy to bet­ter see” a glass slid­ing door — to pat­terned, frit­ted glass — intend­ed to add visu­al inter­fer­ence to deter birds from what would be oth­er­wise dead­ly flight paths. In the realm of sus­tain­abil­i­ty assess­ment met­rics for build­ings — which has not typ­i­cal­ly focused on ani­mal con­ser­va­tion — the U.S. Green Build­ing Coun­cil (USG­BC) has ini­ti­at­ed a LEED Pilot Cred­it for test­ing Bird Col­li­sion Deterrence.”

In this eco-urban dilem­ma, we see an emerg­ing ter­ri­to­ry for explo­ration among these con­flicts of inter­ests. How, then, can we recon­sid­er the glass win­dow in a way that does not remove its func­tion as an aper­ture for view and light? How can we design visu­al inter­fer­ence pat­terns into glass with­out under­min­ing modernism’s dream of trans­paren­cy? How can we con­sid­er the sub­jec­tiv­i­ty of non-human species while still enabling and enhanc­ing human desires, such as views from inside out?

No-Crash Zone is a tem­po­rary ren­o­va­tion of a win­dow in the Car­son, Pirie, Scott Build­ing in Chica­go, Illi­nois, to make vis­i­ble the log­ics of bird-strike pre­ven­tion while still aspir­ing toward architecture’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tions with the human­ist subject.

With a nod to the tiling pat­tern fram­ing the building’s win­dows, the project aims to cre­ate visu­al noise through the deploy­ment of graph­ic orna­ment, recon­sid­er­ing its role beyond agen­das of aes­thet­ic com­po­si­tion. The instal­la­tion also taps into the fun­da­men­tal con­struc­tion of human vision by overt­ly ref­er­enc­ing the one-point per­spec­tive devel­oped dur­ing the Renais­sance, as well as more con­tem­po­rary opti­cal tac­tics such as cam­ou­flage through pixilation.

Ants of the Prairie, No-Crash Zone, installation view, in "Outside Design," Sullivan Galleries, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 2015. Courtesy Sullivan Galleries, SAIC. Photo: Tony Favarula

Ants of the Prairie, No-Crash Zone, installation view, in "Outside Design," Sullivan Galleries, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 2015. Courtesy Sullivan Galleries, SAIC. Photo: Tony Favarula

Ants of the Prairie, Habitat Wall, installation view, in "Outside Design," Sullivan Galleries, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 2015. Courtesy Sullivan Galleries, SAIC. Photo: Tony Favarula

Habi­tat Wall

Whether or not we like to admit it, many of our build­ings already serve as habi­tat sites for urban ani­mals. Bats fre­quent­ly use attic spaces and warm cav­i­ties for roost­ing. Rats and rac­coons occu­py loca­tions around dump­sters and load­ing docks. Birds are often seen on build­ing cor­nices and nest­ing with­in exte­ri­or ornamentation. 

In this project, we ask: If an exte­ri­or wall is already an inhab­it­able sur­face, how can those con­di­tions be made vis­i­ble and aes­thet­i­cal­ly inten­si­fied? How can a wall not only act as a façade but also be designed to per­form as a liv­ing mem­brane? How can archi­tec­ture raise aware­ness of typ­i­cal­ly unde­sired” ani­mals that are crit­i­cal to our urban ecosys­tems? Can a new vision enable us to rethink the image and per­for­mance of the urban vernacular?

Respond­ing to these imper­a­tives, Habi­tat Wall is a pro­to­type wall struc­ture that incor­po­rates con­di­tions for bat and bird inhab­i­ta­tion into its design, aim­ing to give a spa­tial and tac­tile pres­ence to species-spe­cif­ic con­sid­er­a­tions. Built from cedar, pine, and sal­vaged build­ing mate­ri­als, the prototype’s pri­ma­ry fea­tures include thin crevices of space, which allow for occu­pa­tion by bats that typ­i­cal­ly might roost in attics, wall cav­i­ties, and oth­er build­ing fea­tures. Use of rough-cut wood and tex­tured mate­ri­als, such as recy­cled win­dow shut­ters, enables bats to bet­ter land and climb into the cav­i­ties above. The mass and lay­er­ing of the wood helps absorb heat dur­ing the day and pro­vides bet­ter insu­la­tion and ther­mal con­sis­ten­cy, which is impor­tant for bat dwellings. The pro­to­type also includes bird nest­ing box­es and sur­faces that are con­struct­ed for swal­lows and oth­er cliff-dwelling birds.

Ants of the Prairie, Habitat Wall, installation view, in "Outside Design," Sullivan Galleries, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 2015. Courtesy Sullivan Galleries, SAIC. Photo: Tony Favarula

Ants of the Prairie, Habitat Wall, installation view, in "Outside Design," Sullivan Galleries, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 2015. Courtesy Sullivan Galleries, SAIC. Photo: Tony Favarula

Ants of the Prairie, Habitat Wall, installation view, in "Outside Design," Sullivan Galleries, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 2015. Courtesy Sullivan Galleries, SAIC. Photo: Tony Favarula


By Stu­art McLean

Urban wildlife — birds, bats, rats, rac­coons… The list could go on — there are so many of them. Yet, the term urban wildlife” itself con­tin­ues to car­ry con­no­ta­tions of the odd, the anom­alous, of oth­er-than-human bod­ies that have strayed dis­con­cert­ing­ly into set­tings designed and built by and for humans. That this should be the case tes­ti­fies sure­ly to the tenac­i­ty of received dis­tinc­tions between nat­ur­al” and social” envi­ron­ments, despite the best efforts of much recent schol­ar­ship to dis­place or elim­i­nate such dis­tinc­tions. The var­i­ous species of non-human ani­mals who pop­u­late con­tem­po­rary cities do not issue, how­ev­er, from a realm of nature” dis­tinct from and exter­nal to a con­trastive­ly defined human” world. They are rather the denizens of lim­i­nal, in-between spaces — spaces between build­ings, rooftops, attics, load­ing docks, dump­sters, aban­doned lots. The endur­ing human ten­den­cy to label such crea­tures as pests” intrud­ing into spaces where they do not belong is per­haps a prod­uct of the uncer­tain­ty that the anthro­pol­o­gist Mary Dou­glas asso­ci­at­ed with zones of ambi­gu­i­ty and clas­si­fi­ca­to­ry uncer­tain­ty. In Douglas’s terms, such urban ani­mals are, from a human per­spec­tive, exam­ples of mat­ter out of place.”1 Yet, as anoth­er anthro­pol­o­gist, Vic­tor Turn­er, point­ed out, in-between spaces of this kind are not only ambigu­ous but also gen­er­a­tive and trans­for­ma­tive, the lim­i­nal’ phase of ini­ti­a­tion rites, for exam­ple, mark­ing impor­tant tran­si­tions in a neophyte’s’s life-course and social sta­tus, such as the pas­sage from youth to adult­hood.2 The lim­i­nal zones of con­tem­po­rary cityscapes, in which var­i­ous species of urban wildlife make their homes, are sim­i­lar­ly zones of tran­si­tion, where insides merge into out­sides, domes­tic” spaces into wild” ones, and where human­ly con­struct­ed edi­fices are reap­pro­pri­at­ed for oth­er-than-human pur­pos­es. The appear­ance in our” midst of birds, bats, racoons and oth­er non-human ani­mals dis­rupts the famil­iar­i­ty and self-same­ness of what we pro­pri­eto­ri­al­ly think of as the human world, ren­der­ing our famil­iar spaces of habi­ta­tion strange to threm­selves, call­ing atten­tion to oth­er-than-human becom­ings that are close at hand rather than far away.

Nonethe­less, our anthro­pocen­tric assump­tions of unique­ness and priv­i­lege tend still to ren­der us obliv­i­ous to this mul­ti­far­i­ous life that flour­ish­es in our midst and in the midst of the worlds that we claim cred­it for hav­ing con­struct­ed. What would it take to unlearn such priv­i­lege and begin to see for the first time, or to see anew, what has always been there? Could the already estab­lished arts of human world mak­ing be redi­rect­ed to such an end? Might archi­tec­ture be able to help? After all, while build­ings are often designed with human occu­pants in mind, humans are not, in fact, their only inabi­tants or users. Ants of the Prairie’s archi­tec­tur­al projects rise to the chal­lenge of accom­mo­dat­ing human desires in ways that acknowl­edge and respect the co-pres­ence of non-human ani­mals: using decals and orna­men­ta­tion as visu­al noise to pre­vent the bird fatal­i­ties aris­ing from col­li­sions with clear glass; design­ing an exte­ri­or wall as a liv­ing mem­brane” delib­er­ate­ly incor­po­rat­ing crevices and box­es that bats and birds might use. In address­ing itself to a com­mu­ni­ty of users that can no longer be assumed to con­sist exclu­sive­ly of humans, archi­tec­ture itself becomes oth­er. To adapt Heidegger’s terms, build­ing is oblig­ed to take account of oth­er-than-human forms of dwelling.3 Rather than direct­ing itself toward the clear delin­eation of insides and out­sides, such archi­tec­ture is con­cerned with open­ings, aper­tures, and inter­sti­tial spaces where humans and non-humans might encounter one anoth­er as fel­low res­i­dents of the urban land­scape. Who knows — might these one day be the set­tings for strange and unfore­see­able trans-spe­cif­ic meta­mor­phoses and becom­ings, where seem­ing­ly intractable divi­sions between cul­ture and nature, human and ani­mal, final­ly dis­solve, and apart­ment dwellers launch them­selves into feath­ered, avian flight? If Ants of the Prairie’s designs simul­ta­ne­ous­ly address the con­cerns of the present and evoke a range of pos­si­ble futures, they also cause us to view the past in a dif­fer­ent light. As Lyotard wrote of the post­mod­ern con­di­tion,” the term posthu­man” does not nec­es­sar­i­ly des­ig­nate the far side of an epochal break, that which fol­lows chrono­log­i­cal­ly after” the human.4 Instead, it prompts us to ques­tion whether humans have ever been able to claim exclu­sive, pro­pri­eto­ry rights to any time or space. Ants of the Prairie’s archi­tec­ture does the same. Designed to acco­mo­date the needs of con­tem­po­rary, oth­er-than-human urban pop­u­la­tions, it reminds us, too, that the cities we, as humans, pride our­selves on build­ing have nev­er belonged only to us.



Mary Dou­glas, Puri­ty and Dan­ger: An Analy­sis of the Con­cepts of Pol­lu­tion and Taboo (Lon­don, UK: Rout­ledge Clas­sics, 2002 [1966]).


Vic­tor Turn­er, The For­est of Sym­bols: Aspects of Ndem­bu Rit­u­al (Itha­ca, NY: Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1970).


Mar­tin Hei­deg­ger, Build­ing Dwelling Think­ing,” in Basic Writ­ings, ed. D. F. Krell (New York, NY: Harp­er and Row, 1977 [1951]).


Jean-François Lyotard, The Post­mod­ern Con­di­tion: A Report on Knowl­edge (Min­neapo­lis, MN: Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 1984 [1979]).

animalsplacetechnologyoutside designlab report


Joyce Hwang, AIA, NCARB, is the Direc­tor of Ants of the Prairie, an office of archi­tec­tur­al prac­tice and research that focus­es on con­fronting con­tem­po­rary eco­log­i­cal con­di­tions through cre­ative means. In that capac­i­ty, she is cur­rent­ly devel­op­ing a series of projects that incor­po­rate wildlife habi­tats into con­struct­ed envi­ron­ments, includ­ing Bat Tow­er (2010), Bat Cloud (2012), and Habi­tat Wall (2011; 2015). Hwang is a recip­i­ent of the Archi­tec­tur­al League of New York’s Emerg­ing Voic­es Award (2014), a New York Foun­da­tion for the Arts (NYFA) Fel­low­ship (2013), two New York State Coun­cil on the Arts (NYSCA) Inde­pen­dent Project Grants (2008, 2013), and two Mac­Dow­ell Colony Fel­low­ships (2011, 2016). Her work has been exhib­it­ed at the Venice Archi­tec­ture Bien­nale and the Inter­na­tion­al Archi­tec­ture Bien­nale, Rot­ter­dam, among oth­er venues. Hwang’s projects and writ­ing have been fea­tured in inter­na­tion­al online and print pub­li­ca­tions, such as Good, Curbed, Prax­is, Archi­tect Mag­a­zine, Green Build­ing and Design, AV Proyec­tos, Brack­et, MONU, and Next Nature. She is a co-orga­niz­er of the Hive City Habi­tat Design Com­pe­ti­tion and a co-edi­tor of Beyond Patron­age: Recon­sid­er­ing Mod­els of Prac­tice (Actar, 2015). Hwang is a reg­is­tered archi­tect in New York State. She has prac­ticed pro­fes­sion­al­ly with offices in New York, Philadel­phia, San Fran­cis­co, and Barcelona and col­lab­o­rat­ed with the office of Car­los Fer­rater in the invit­ed com­pe­ti­tion for the new inter­na­tion­al ter­mi­nal at the Barcelona Air­port. Hwang received a post-pro­fes­sion­al Mas­ter of Archi­tec­ture degree from Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty and a Bach­e­lor of Archi­tec­ture degree from Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty, where she received the Charles Good­win Sands Memo­r­i­al Bronze Medal. Email: jh96@​buffalo.​edu

Stu­art McLean is Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Anthro­pol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta. His work the­o­rizes the inter­sec­tion between the mate­r­i­al world and the human elab­o­ra­tion of cul­tur­al mean­ing by con­sid­er­ing the vari­ety of ways in which human beings have under­stood and artic­u­lat­ed the rela­tion­ship between their own acts of imag­i­na­tion, remem­brance, and self-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and the mate­r­i­al process­es giv­ing form to their bod­ies, their mate­r­i­al envi­ron­ments, and their world. McLean’s pub­li­ca­tions include a series of impor­tant essays about mem­o­ry and imag­i­na­tion, with spe­cial empha­sis on the cul­ture of Ire­land, as well as the book The Event and Its Ter­rors: Ire­land, Famine, Moder­ni­ty (Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2004). He received a a BA in Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Oxford and a Ph.D. in Socio­cul­tur­al Anthro­pol­o­gy from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty. Email: mclea070@​umn.​edu