Architecture is no longer just for people MIT News

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In a rural northwest Nevada valley that is home to expansive wetlands, sagebrush grasslands and dozens of natural springs is a 3,800-acre tract of off-grid land known as the Fly Ranch. Owned by Burning Man, the community that annually transforms neighboring Playa into a colourful, free-roaming temporary town, Fly Ranch is part of a long-term project to expand the festival’s experimental ethos beyond the week-long event. In 2018, the group, in partnership with the Land Art Generator Initiative, invited proposals for sustainable systems for energy, water, food, shelter and regenerative waste management on site.

For recent MIT graduates Zhicheng Xu March 22 and Mengqi Moon He SMArchS 20, Fly Ranch presented a new challenge. Xu and He, who have backgrounds in landscape design, urban design, and architecture, were researching the use of wood as a building material , and thought the competition would be a good opportunity to experiment and showcase some of their early research. “But because of our MIT training, we approached the problem very critically,” says Xu, “we asked ourselves: Who are we designing for? What do we mean by protection? Protect who?

Architecture for non-human worlds

Her winning proposal “Lodgers,” selected from 185 entries and currently on view at the Weisner Student Art Gallery, asks how to design a structure that will house not only the land’s human residents, but also the 100+ plant and and animal species they visit the desert house. In other words, what would an architecture look like that puts not only human needs at the center, but also those of the broader ecosystem?

In developing the project during the pandemic lockdowns, Xu and He pored over a long list of hundreds of local plants and animals — from red-tailed hawks to desert rats to bullfrogs — and designed the project with those species in mind. The thatched organic structures, dubbed “Lodgers,” combine new computational tools with the traditional designs of the Western Shoshone and Northern Paiute found in shelters, woven baskets, and environmental education classrooms for humans.

But it wasn’t until they visited Fly Ranch in spring 2021 that Xu and He’s understanding of the project deepened. For several nights, they camped on-site with other competition finalists, along with park rangers and longtime burners, eating community meals together and learning first-hand about the complexities of the desert. At one point during the trip, they got caught in a sandstorm while towing a trailerload of supplies down a dirt road. The experience, they say, was an important lesson in humility and how such extremes made the landscape what it was. “That’s why we later came up with the term ‘friction management’, because it’s always there,” he says, “there is no solution.” Xu adds, “The different elements of the country — the water, the heat, the sounds, the wind – are the elements we have to deal with in the project. Those little moments made us realize that we need to reposition ourselves, stay humble and try to understand the country.”

Leave no trace

While the deserts of the American West have long been prone to human hubris – from large-scale military incursions to mining operations that have left deep scars on the landscape – Xu and He designed the “Lodgers” to leave a light footprint. Instead of seeing buildings as permanent solutions where the environment is perceived as an obstacle to be overcome, Xu and He see their project as a “temporary occupant”.

To reduce carbon emissions, their goal was to use inexpensive, low-tech recycled materials that could be used without special training or heavy equipment, making the build itself accessible to everyone in the community. In addition to locally collected scrap wood, the project uses 2×4 lumber, one of the most common and cheapest materials in American construction, and thatched roofs for the facades, which are made from dry reeds and rushes, which grow abundantly in the region. If the buildings are shut down, they can decompose naturally through the use of renewable raw materials.

Fly Ranch at MIT

Now the MIT community has a chance to experience a piece of the Nevada desert — and be part of the participatory design process. “We are very fortunate to be funded by the MIT Council of the Arts,” says Xu. “With this funding, we were able to expand the team so that the format of the exhibition was more democratic than just designing and building.” With the help of their classmates Calvin Zhong ’18 and Wuyahuang Li SMarchS ’21, Xu and He brought their proposal to life. The ambitious immersive installation includes architectural models, field recordings, projections and artifacts such as the skeletons of turtles and fish collected at Fly Ranch. Inside the structure is a large communal table where Xu and He hope to host workshops and talks to encourage more dialogue and collaboration. Having learned from the design-build, Xu and He are now gathering feedback from MIT professors and colleagues to take the project to the next level. In the autumn they will present the “Lodgers” for the first time at the Lisbon Architectural Triennale and hope to soon be able to build a prototype at the Fly Ranch themselves.

They hope that the structures will stimulate a greater reflection on our entanglements with the extra-human world and the possibilities of an architecture designed for ephemerality. Because in this landscape people are often only “occasional guests” and part of larger cycles of growth and decay. “For us it is a beautiful expression of how different species are entangled on the land. And we as humans are just another tiny piece in this entanglement,” says Xu.

Established in 1983 as a gift from the MIT class, the Wiesner Gallery honors former MIT President Jerome Wiesner for his support of the arts at the institute. The gallery was fully renovated in the fall of 2016, thanks in part to the generosity of Harold ’44 and Arlene Schnitzer and the Council for the Arts at MIT and now also serves as the central meeting place for MIT Student Arts Programming, including START Studio, the Creative Arts Competition, the Student Arts Advisory Board, and the Arts Scholars. Lodgers: Friction Between Neighbors is on view at the Wiesner Student Art Gallery through April 29 and was funded in part by the Council for the Arts at MIT, a group of alumni and friends with strong commitments to the arts and MIT’s service -Community.

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