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Architect's 'Bat Cloud' Brings a Remarkable, Afflicted Animal Out of the Shadows and into the Light

By Erin Maynard

Release Date: July 18, 2012

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Joyce Hwang's "Bat Cloud" has been installed to provide a habitat for bats, as well as to eucaiton the public about them.

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: bats.

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 insulation foam.

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 concept.

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 relationship."

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.