Opinion

How Can We Re-Learn the Art of Multispecies Cohabitation?

Humans have been designing spaces for and with animals and plants for thousands of years, so what has changed? A new exhibition by Feral Partnerships opening this week confronts this era of unprecedented biodiversity loss, and asks how architecture and planning can embrace the natural world once more.

Remains of Zoroastrian Dakhma temples where vultures facilitate the passage of the soul from the body. Yazd, Iran. Image via Shutterstock, ID:1929426209

Contemporary environmental crises have heightened the need for architecture to engage with issues of conservation and biodiversity. With nature-reserve models failing to arrest global ecological loss, and with construction continuing apace in many parts of the world, the question increasingly becomes: how might we secure biodiversity within the shared territories of human and other-than-human inhabitation?1 Architecture and urban planning disciplines thus sit at a critical position for intervention in the interests of multispecies stakeholders. This position invites an expansion of our practice and a reconsideration of our ways of being in the world and in the built environment.

Modern architectural and urban theories have in fact long been animated by biological and ecological narratives, formulated to counter the ills of industrialised life. Many have argued, however, that such movements have tended not to include the other-than-human in their projects, but rather to legitimise more controlled and homogeneous spaces.2 The architectural profession has largely continued in this tradition in its responses to environmental crisis, rallying around technical solutions: airtight envelopes, domestic and regional scale renewable energy production, a devotion to data gathering and monitoring, or biomimicry. Yet the ongoing complicity of urbanisation and construction in biodiversity loss raises important questions. Should we frame the escalation of human environmental control as a panacea or a problem? Which species are we planning to bring with us into a post-fossil fuel future? Or, to put it another way, what does it matter if energy sources and construction methods are clean and quiet if there are no living soils, insects, birds, fish or mammals left to flourish in their midst?

“Our research and current exhibition, The Architecture of Multispecies Cohabitation, aims to shift the architectural discourse towards a more empathetic paradigm which refuses to single out human life as the subject and object of production.”

Through modelling, drawing, photographs and film, across six conceptual frameworks, we present case studies from a research archive of built forms that encapsulate certain forms of commitment between humans and other species. This research has been global in scope with but an emphasis on Australian stories. Here are four examples.

Bush House

The nineteenth century saw a massive migration of plants, animals and humans across the planet. Botanical gardens across Europe invested enormous resources into collecting ‘exotic’ specimens, whilst familiar ‘Old World’ species were cultivated within ‘New World’ colonies.3

Florence Reid in a bamboo bush-house at Balnagowan Station, ca. 1900, via State Library of Queensland.

The bush house is one typology born out of this imperial ecological project. In many ways it was the adaptation of the glasshouse or conservatory — a Victorian-era climate controlled environment for the propagation of economic and ornamental plants — for warmer climates. Beginning as an exclusively horticultural space, detached from the home, it gradually became a place to teach children, linger and entertain (part of a patriarchal process that saw women as educators in the home).4 The maintenance and care of plants was important work for the colonial project of acclimatisation. However it also fostered the growth of feminist led botany practices and offered Victorian women a passage into an otherwise male-dominated global network of scientists.5 When set against contemporary high tech, hydroponic greenhouse production in regional areas, the bush house marks another pathway for sun-based gardening: developing from an essential tool for land development into a space of ornament, education and enjoyment.6

Kabata

Kabata is a unique refrigeration and cleaning system with spring water which has been used in Japan’s Shiga prefecture for more than a century. Although many towns had similar systems, most have been replaced by municipal drinking water. However, Harie, a town with about 600 inhabitants on the margins of Lake Biwa, still has more than 100 houses with Kabata.7

Kabata in Harie. Photo courtesy of Biwako Visitors Bureau, Japan.

Harie is located at the edge of an alluvial fan, where confined groundwater upwells, and can be brought to the surface with a pipe hammered into the ground.8 This Kabata spring is separated into several concrete water basins for different purposes under a wooden roofed sheds.9 Water from the upwelling used to be manually brought into the home for drinking and cooking, but today most houses have an electrical pump. A first basin is used for cooling and rinsing: the temperature of ground water stays between 13 and 15 degrees Celsius through the year, so in summer people store tomatoes, cucumbers and watermelons in the water, or use it to cool hot tea. A second basin is used to wash pans or other utensils. Most households have carp or other fish, which were once to be eaten, but now are kept as “cleaners” that eat leftover food particles on the pans.10 The Kabata users rely on the carp, as well as on other residents, to ensure that the water remains clean and usable, and the community has recently agreed to avoid the use of harsh cleaning chemicals, to protect the carp and the potability of the water.11 The delicate commonality embedded in the use of this aquatic resource continues to keep the residents of Harie attentive to the health of their local ecology.

Dovecote

The Greek island of Tinos located in the Cyclades archipelago, contains over 1,000 highly ornate homes for pigeons known as Peristeriones. In feudal times, Venetian traders learned to domesticate the birds for their meat, lubricating fat, communication capabilities and nutrient rich manure used as fertiliser. Situated amidst arable fields reliant on their precious holdings, the dovecotes were expressed as miniature castles drawing upon medieval Venetian motifs, used to express social status and function.12 Eclectic triangular and diagonal openings face waterways where pigeons fed, returning with nutrient rich manure to boost crop yields. Horizontal planes protect the elevated openings from snakes and other threats from entering, while allowing many surfaces for pigeons to nest, sit and rest between flights.

Dovecote Tinos (Greece) photo by Marcin Bajer via Flickr.

While pigeon rearing remains a popular practice around the world, the dovecote and the nutrient soil it generated became redundant with the rise of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. Those same chemicals enter into waterways via agricultural runoff, disrupting ecosystems and producing infertility in humans.

Dakhma

The Dakhma or Tower of Silence is a circular structure, usually at the top of a mound of sand or a rocky hill, designed to host the Zoroastrian funerary practice of Dokhmenashini. It consists of a raised plinth, open to the sky, where human corpses are placed for excarnation by avian scavengers. For Zoroastrians, Dokhmenashini accords the necessary reverence to the elements of earth and fire, which are not permitted to be contaminated by the demonic spirits believed to inhabit the dead body.13

Tower of Silence. Image from India Office Photographs, Photo 576/(2).

The bodies are located in three concentric depressions, usually the outer circle for males, middle for females and inner for children. In between the rings there are raised footpaths for the pallbearers. Once the carrion birds have reduced the body to the bones, these are then sprinkled and washed with nitric acid and slaked lime, and the remains filtered by layers of sandstone, sand and charcoal at the base of the well so that any rainwater that flows into the ground is free of any contamination.

“These architectures each begin to open up lost worlds to be reclaimed. Each is produced by communities of humans, animals, plants and others making their lives together.”

While no longer practiced in Iran, many Zoroastrians fled to India and Pakistan in the 800s where Towers of Silence in Karachi and Mumbai are still active today. However, Indian vulture populations have dramatically declined due to the use of toxic drugs in the livestock they feed on.14 Increasingly the work of the vultures is being replaced ineffectually by solar concentrators.15 In Iran, thanks to a process of reintroduction, the sacred Huma vulture can now be seen flying in the northern mountains, though the practice of Dokhmenashini remains repressed. The decline of the Dakhma prompts reflection on human exceptionalism, which finds abhorrence in humans becoming food for others, and reveals the entangled forms of loss that result from species extinction.

These architectures each begin to open up lost worlds to be reclaimed. Each is produced by communities of humans, animals, plants and others making their lives together. What transformations might result from restoring inter-species commitments in the production of built environments that allow multispecies lives to flourish?

References
1. We follow in particular the incisive critiques and call for “convivial conservation” in Bram Buscher and Robert Fletcher (2020) The Conservation Revolution.
2. See for example, Adams, R.E. (2014). Natura Urbans, Natura Urbanata: Ecological Urbanism, Circulation, and the Immunization of Nature. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 32(1), pp.12–29.
3. Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens, Lucile H. Brockway, Remaking the Land: The Acclimatization Movement and Anglo Ideas of Nature, Thomas R. Dunlap, Assembling Acclimatization: Frederick McCoy, European Ideas, Australian Circumstances, Peter Minard, They Dined on Eland: Story of the Acclimatisation Societies Hardcover, Christopher Lever
4. Climate and Garden Design in Queensland, Dr. Jean Sim
5. Gender and “Modern” Botany in Victorian England, Ann B. Shteir
6. 4. Horwood, Potted History
7. Lindström, Kati. 2014. ‘Internal and External Perception in Conceptualizing Home Landscapes: Japanese Examples’. Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 96 (1): 58. https://doi.org/10.1111/geob.12036.
8. Gujo city, Report for spatial environment related with water, Gujo city, 2005 (Available in Japanese)
9. Ishikawa, S. and Hamazaki, K. A study about the construction of space of the traditional village by the spring in West Shiga – Harie District in Shinasahi-cho, Takashima city, Shiga, Dai Ichi Jutaku Institution, 2008
10. Ryu, Maki. Typologies for Sustainable Water Use in Historical Japanese Towns, 2016. Accessed on https://issuu.com/sorakara/docs/120326sfa_sorakara_small
11. Takashima City, Report on the preservation and use of water landscape in Takashima Harie and Shimofuri, 2010
13. Boyce, Mary (1979), Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, London: Routledge; Modi, Jivanji Jamshedji Modi (1928), The Funeral Ceremonies of the Parsees, Anthropological Society of Bombay; Wadia, Azmi (2002), “Evolution of the Towers of Silence and their Significance”, in Godrej, Pheroza J.; Mistree, Firoza Punthakey (eds.), A Zoroastrian Tapestry, New York: Mapin
14. Swan, Gerry; et al. (2006), “Removing the threat of diclofenac to critically endangered Asian vultures”, PLoS Biology; ; Harris, Gardiner “Giving New Life to Vultures to Restore a Human Ritual of Death” “The New York Times”, 29 November 2012.
15. Srivastava, Sanjeev, “Parsis turn to solar power”, BBC News South Asia


The Architecture of Multispecies Cohabitation exhibition runs from April 22 to June 4 at the Tin Sheds Gallery. To celebrate the opening, on Thursday April 22, 6pm, Feral Partnerships will share stories of more-than-human entanglements (in person and via Zoom), followed by a panel discussion with University of Sydney academics Professor Dany Celermajer, Professor Robyn DowlingAssociate Professor and Chair of Architecture Dagma Reinhardt and Professor Michael Tawa.

Feral Partnerships is a collaboration born out of frustration with professional and academic practice standards in architecture around ecological and biodiversity loss. We are interested in stories of entangled ecologies and world-making projects that meet at and within , the boundaries of whatever is perceived to be ‘the built environment.’ In opening up and expanding spatial and disciplinary boundaries, our practice explores how novel forms of commitment between human and other- than-human ecologies can emerge. Since its formation in late 2019, Feral Partnerships has been selected to co-organise a panel session at the Political Ecology Network (POLLEN) Third Biennial Conference, on the theme of multispecies co-habitation in architecture and the built environment. We have also been awarded a Culture & Animals Foundation 2020 grant, funding our research project: “The Architecture of Multispecies Cohabitation,” currently exhibiting at the University of Sydney’s Tin Sheds Gallery in April 2021.