Bird House

This birdhouse was designed for a charity auction on behalf of Fontenelle Nature Association of Nebraska, in March 2002. It was one of several birdhouses designed by other architects in my previous office, Alley Poyner Architecture P.C., a local architecture firm in Omaha Nebraska.

Architects have e long history of designing birdhouses, and they have served primarily as a mode of expressing their attitude towards nature. Frank Lloyd Wright (fig.1) designed several of them, and the one shown here was built on concrete, which engages it to the bigger framework of Wright?s architectural discourse. Another one by Oscar Niemeyer (fig.2), goes farther than that and uses the birdhouse as a tool to emphasize or explore the relationship of nature with the city. Even today architects continue to design them, as it was the case with The Birdhouse Project back in
2002 which attracted world renowned architects, industrial designers, and artists, to explore their ideas about the built environment and nature; among them are Tadao Ando, Peter Eisenman, Daniel Libeskind, Neil M. Denari, Renzo Piano, Norman Foster etc.

Well, on the work of an architect, birdhouses might have other connotations than simply evoking ideas. For example someone suggested back in 2003 in a report for the NewsWeek, that Daniel Libeskind The once obscure architect – a revered avant-garde theorist who spent the first 20 years of his career without building so much as a birdhouse – was a besieged New York celebrity last week” after he won the New World Trade Center competition. What it exactly implies is that building a birdhouse is a sign of someone who can’t build anything else, and the only client that one can have is just a bird.

Back to the ideas, one still has a lot of room exploring them, even under such a small thing as a birdhouse. In this case, choosing an egg to be the representational form for of a birdhouse, doesn’t simply mean drawing out historical references, like Frank Gehry’s fish sculptures (fig.3) and restaurants which draw those references to prehistory. Although the reference to Gehry’s work is obvious, history, and the modernist discourse that follows it, was the least of my concerns. As Peter Eisenman would say “one has to know enough about the history in order to change it“. The cultural implications of the work were instead the focus, and more precisely the way we conceive the relationship of human and nature, which is to say that nature takes priority and not the human development, even though in this case expressed in a very symbolic way. A similar argument – that in order to face the climate change today, a change in the culture and the way we leave the everyday life is needed – was the center of an essay titled “Why Bother”by Michael Pollan in New York Times Magazine which dedicated the whole issue this week to the climate change.  As the argument goes, one cannot expect institutional changes unless there is a cultural one and in the way we leave individually our everyday life.

Since the climate change crisis is in the very bottom a crisis of lifestyle, to wait for legislation or technology to solve the problem of how we are living our lives suggests we’re not really serious about changing – something our politicians cannot fail to notice.

This individual responsibility according to Daniel B. Botkin, American naturalist and ecologist, is extended even to scientists and those who think seriously about the environment:

There is also a difference between what an individual scientist says and what a large group of scientists agree to say, when they are brought together by a political body and engaged in an attempt to reach a consensus. Most of the time, the result is “conventional wisdom” with all of its pitfalls, along with compromises that come about as the large group tries to deal with cultural and political differences. A report by such a large group is not scientific truth; it isn’t even expert opinion; it’s just a general negotiated agreement.

But what interest me most about Botkin is his conviction that the environment is a design problem not a truth problem. Which is to say; there is no single truth, but we have to take each case individually and treat it as responsibly as one can. All this brings me to the debate about environment in Albania, and specifically to the question whether the development should take priority over the environment (see the polemics between A. Vehbiu and A. Klosi). But it also raises another important question: where is the role of the designers, scientists, engineers in all these? It is obvious that as the public does not trust its institutions, they don’t trust their experts either, who enter in “a general negotiated agreement”.According to Botkin there are three types of scientists;

researcher, expert witness, and “priest.” As a researcher, a scientist reports the results of a specific study he has done, objectively. As an expert witness, a scientist tells us about a subject in which he has worked, but generalizes beyond his own work, and gives a considered opinion based on his professional experience and best understanding. As a “priest” a scientist tells us what to think and what to believe.

It is clear that in the environmental and urban development debate in Albania it is the role of the expert witness what is lacking the most, and the public role of the scientist, engineer and artist (architect) as a “designer” of a life style rather than the one who sets for “negotiated agreements” and conformism. (Here one cannot  forget the role that the modern advantaged movement had set for the designer, as modeler of a particular lifestyle rather than that of the social conformist). In a third world country like Albania, where the neocolonialist imported (energy) policies and decisions, that are not shaped by taking in consideration the needs of Albanian public but rather the needs of those (public opinions) equipped to make more informed decisions – as it is the case of Italy wanted to build power plants in Albania (whether fossil or nuclear plants outlawed in Italy) to balance its won energy consumption – those who help to inform the Albanian public over the best ways toward development and environmental consciousness in order to make its voice more credible and respectful, and do not conform to the preestablished policies, are the ones needed.


1                       2                      3
1. Frank Lloyd Wright Birdhouse, Darwin D. Martin House, Buffalo, New York 1904
2. Oscar Niemieyer Birdhouse, Brasilia, Brazil
3. Frank Gehry, Inhabitable Fish 

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