BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A dark cloud hovers above a stand of Eastern
cottonwood trees in Tifft Farm, a 264-acre woodland nature refuge
on Lake Erie. But this is no ordinary cloud; it is a high-tech
habitat for one of the world's most misunderstood species:
And it is a work of art.
"Bat Cloud," an eco-sculpture designed by Joyce Hwang, assistant
professor of architecture at the University at Buffalo, with
assistance from current and former UB architecture students, was
installed at the refuge in May to provide a habitat for bats,
educate the public about them and draw attention to an illness that
is decimating the bat population.
Hwang constructed individual self-sustaining pods -- homes for
the bats -- that hang together from cables. They collectively form
a "cloud" that resembles a cluster of roosting bats. Each pod is
made of stainless steel mesh in an all-weather insulating blanket
(made of layers of plastic, aluminum and Astrolar fabric) and
Sze Wan Li, who received her master's degree in architecture in
2012 and her bachelor's degree in architecture in 2009, both from
UB, managed the design and production process of the pods.
The upper portion of the pod serves as the bats' roosting area
and the lower portion is filled with soil and native plants. Bat
guano (dung) collects in the bottom of the pods and fertilizes the
plants, which attract insects, a principle food source for bats.
The pods also allow for slow water drainage.
She says she became alarmed about the health status of bats when
the fungal infection known as "White Nose Syndrome" showed up in
upstate eastern New York in 2006. The fungus, which afflicts brown
bats, causes them to emerge from hibernation early and, as a
result, starve and freeze to death. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife
Service estimates that the disease so far has killed nearly 7
million bats, mostly in the Northeast and Midwest.
Hwang decided to draw attention to their rapidly deteriorating
situation, to bring the bats out of the shadows and focus public
attention on the essential role they play in our ecology. This, she
thought would make the endangered animals more sympathetic and
would help the public see their plight as crucial, not only to the
bats' well being, but to their own.
"Bats are so misunderstood," she says.
"They're seen as ' bad' animals -- scary and no good. But they
really are very helpful," Hwang says, pointing out that the loss of
bats (which eat a vast number of disease-carrying insects, notably
mosquitoes) destabilizes ecosystems and provokes an increase in the
use of chemicals for insect control.
Bats also serve an important pollination function and disperse
plant seeds as well. Bat guano is an excellent and powerful
fertilizer and is used in fuel, and a new drug used to treat stroke
victims was derived from a blood-thinning enzyme produced by bats.
Scientists studying bat echolocation are devising ways for humans
-- especially the blind -- to employ this learnable skill to "see"
as bats do in a dark environment.
Although White Nose Syndrome (so named for the white fungus
encircling the noses of some, but not all of the afflicted bats)
generally falls within the purview of biologists and mycologists,
Hwang thought there was a need for an architectural intervention
and began designing wildlife habitats that could exist within areas
populated by humans. Throughout the development of Bat Cloud, Hwang
consulted with Katharina Dittmar, PhD, UB assistant professor of
biological sciences, to assure that the project would best meet the
needs of the bats.
She says her mission was inspired by the fact that admiring
crowds gather nightly at Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas,
to watch the antics of up to 1.5 million Mexican free-tail bats
that live on the bridge in the spring and summer months. She also
recalled the monolithic towers developed in the 1920s by physician
and bacteriologist Charles Campbell to attract and house a vast air
force of malaria-eradicating, guano-producing bats. Today, the
towers draw tourists in Texas and Florida.
Having spent many summers in the south of Spain, Hwang also
noted during her visits the correlation between architectural
design and bat populations. She observed that buildings that
featured many vents, small openings, and crevices encouraged bats
to roost, a fact that informs her bat habitat architecture.
Hwang's first foray into the design of unique living
environments for bats was "Bat Tower," installed in 2010 at Griffis
Sculpture Park in East Otto. She says she built it to promote
visibility to the presence of the bat and its current plight. The
Bat Cloud, she says, is a natural extension of her first project.
Mikaila Waters, who received her bachelor's degree in architecture
from UB in 2011, worked with Hwang to develop the initial
The Bat Cloud was designed and installed as part of "Fluid
Culture," a year-long lecture, arts and media series sponsored by
the UB Humanities Institute. The 2012 series is focused on the
relationships between culture and ecology, particularly with
respect to water. It also explored the relationship between local
and urban cultures, globalization and global ecology
"Bats," says Hwang, "are an integral part of this
Visual representations of Bat Cloud have been selected to be
part of the U.S. exhibition, "Spontaneous Interventions: Design
Actions for the Common Good" at the 13th International Venice
Architecture Biennale, Aug. 29 through Nov. 25.