Interview with Joyce Hwang

A few months ago we posted on the Bat Tower, an exciting project by Joyce Hwang and her students at SUNY Buffalo. Recently we’ve had the chance to catch up with her and get some more details about the tower itself and what can happen when Animals get involved with Architecture.

A few months ago we posted on the Bat Tower, an exciting project by Joyce Hwang and her students at SUNY Buffalo. Recently we’ve had the chance to catch up with her and get some more details about the tower itself and what can happen when Animals get involved with Architecture.

1) As you were designing the Bat Tower what kind of considerations were you making to account for the various biological and behavioral characteristics of your clients (i.e. Bats)? Was there any one particular characteristic that came to under-pin the design of the project? I mean, in terms of accounting for their size, nesting patterns, flying patterns… etc.

When I first became interested in bats and their behavior, I was surprised to learn that many species are able to live in spaces that we tend to think of as uninhabitable, for example, under loose pieces of tree bark, between pieces of building material, etc.  Some bats may tend to ‘prefer’ super-tight spaces, maybe ¾” wide or less (depending on the species).  Prior to engaging with this research, I had imagined that bats mostly resided in caves, or in attics – both of which are typically large, unstructured spaces. These two contrasting spatial conditions – tight, narrow crevices, and open, unstructured ‘cave-like’ spaces – were constant references throughout our design process. I like to think of the Bat Tower as a kind of ‘vertical cave,’ – one which is formed by a series of wood ribs that are spaced apart to create the tight crevices for bats to occupy.

Another significant characteristic we considered is their immense appetite for eating mosquitoes and other insects. We wanted to locate the project in a place that had a lot of insects. So, after searching a bit and looking out specifically for this condition, we chose a sunny, pondside site at Griffis Sculpture Park, about 1 hour south of Buffalo. To further enhance the ‘supply’ of insects, we planted chives, oregano, and marjoram at the base of the tower – hoping that these herbs will attract the insects that bats like to eat.

2) Further to this point, can you talk a little about the specifics of the design of the tower?

As I mentioned, the base of the tower is a garden of bat-attracting herbs. The tower is constructed from exterior-grade plywood ribs, spaced apart at various intervals, forming narrow spaces from ¾” to 1 ¼” in width. The top portion of the tower is covered with triangular wood panels, stained a dark color to absorb more sunlight, in order to create a consistently warm interior environment necessary for bat habitation and roosting. In order to help bats enter the tower, some of the ribs near the top are designed as protruding fins, therefore giving them enough room to land. Most of the ribs are etched with 1/8”-deep grooves, which act as a kind of ‘ladder’ for bats to cling to and climb. The undersides of all horizontal surfaces are also etched with grooves, to provide edges for bats to hold (when they are hanging upside down to sleep, etc).

Bat Tower was conceived of as a prototype. When we first started designing the project, we did not know exactly where we would eventually install it, so a part of the design was also to make it something that could be transported and installed almost anywhere. Given that some of our potential sites (including the one we ultimately chose) involved driving on muddy dirt roads and up steep hills, we had to design and construct the tower as a series of smaller modules that could be transported relatively easily in a 4-wheel drive pick-up truck, and assembled on site.

3) Actually, I should have probably asked this first. I’m very interested in the actual impact of these kinds of Animal projects…we often see cool projects but have little information on their effectiveness in the field. Have you been tracking the Bat use of the Tower? Has there been any useful feed-back information from the natural world?

The Bat Tower was installed in June of 2010. Over the summer and into the autumn, a number of my collaborators and I visited the project occasionally, to see if we could find evidence of bat occupation. There were several times when bats were spotted flying out of the tower at dusk. And we also did see bat guano at the base of the tower. One of my consultants, a biologist, mentioned that she believes that there are young male bats in the tower, based on what she noticed. During the past winter months, we have not been able to visit the project due to the fact that the park’s trails are only accessible by snowshoeing. All of our observations to date have been very informal. We are definitely interested in initiating a more systematic/scientific way of observing and recording information from the project. Now that it is (finally?) spring – and with bat roosting season in the very near future—we are planning to begin this process.

4) When people hear “biology in design” we’ve found that their mental images tend to skew way into the bio-mimetic (Tom Wiscombe) or hyper-green (sod houses, straw-bales). There is very little understanding of the design potential for projects that focus on the biological process and less on the aesthetics. Firstly, I’m curious to hear how you deal with these expectations in your own work and secondly why you think that this third category of process based design is important (or not) today.

First, I wouldn’t say that my projects focus on biological processes only, and not aesthetics. In my view, the consideration of aesthetics is still an issue with which architects must contend. Formal and spatial preoccupations are significant in our practice. In this vein, hyper-green design tactics are limiting in terms of forging a path for architectural exploration and experimentation. While there are many relevant lessons to be learned from it, I believe that hyper-green design can only be seen as sets of building strategies, not as a complete architectural agenda. ‘Bio-mimetic’ explorations are interesting in the way they mine biological relationships, and then speculate about the ‘applications’ of those relationships to discover ways of imagining space/form. However, I believe that these overtly formal agendas are also incredibly limiting in how they ultimately participate in the processes that shape our environments.

In my work, I am interested in exploring how architecture can perform as an active agent.  For example, how can architecture facilitate natural processes that are already occurring? How can architecture mediate between humans and our natural and constructed environments? I’m very interested in exploring how to produce a sense of poignancy through architecture, while still tackling seemingly mundane problems/issues in a serious way. In Bat tower, and perhaps more so in my current project, Pest Wall, my aim is to create projects that can effectively ‘work’ as a wildlife habitats, but also provoke our own discomforts toward animals and the unpredictability of nature. So, in this way, I’m interested not only in addressing animals’ needs as ‘clients,’ but also in the human perception of animals and how we relate to them. I hope that my “Pest Architecture” projects (the umbrella title for my current work) will ‘perform’ not only environmentally, but also as vehicles for public awareness of animals and their critical roles in our ecosystem. This issue is significant, in my mind, especially with animals such as bats – they are so important, yet they are dying out in great numbers due to White Nose Syndrome, an ecological crisis that many people are still unaware of.

Process-based design, as you put it, is important today. It is imperative that we attempt to engage with the forces at work in the world – ecological, political, social, etc. and at multiple scales. This is the only way to produce relevant work. Yet, the discipline of architecture is not only about solving problems and addressing social/political/ecological issues. If that were the case, we’d operate as ecologists, politicians, or social scientists.  As architects, I think it is important that we work to further aesthetic, formal, and spatial agendas as well. So, yes, this ‘third’ category is necessary and relevant today.

Fantastic! And lastly, after the success and positive public reaction to the Bat Tower what do you have planned next?

I actually think that we are still in the process of evaluating the “success” of the Bat Tower as a performative structure. As I mentioned earlier, I’m hoping to conduct a more systematic study of how well it is “working” as a bat habitation. Hopefully, this process will be initiated over the summer. Currently, I am working on a new project, titled “Pest Wall.” This is another installation project that will take on the form of an exterior wall, incorporating conditions of bat habitation in a visibly prominent way. After Bat Tower, Pest Wall will be the second built project in the “Pest Architecture” series. At some point, I am hoping that we will be able to construct a project of this sort in an urban context. I think that there is still a lot of fear and anxiety about creating environments for bats in cities. Not to generalize, but I think that bats are frequently seen as pests and often exterminated when found by city dwellers.

Thanks Joyce. We look forward to all your projects and thank you again, so much, for your time with us.


All images credit the architect via Inhabitat.


  1. Excellent interview Ned! What a great project and I’m very excited to hear they plan to do more studies and surveys on the effectiveness of the project. I’m also quite excited to hear Joyce has ambitions to do an urban project. Really happy about projects like this.

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