Holding Space

Faculty headshot.

Joyce Hwang, associate professor in the School of Architecture and Planning, with “Bower,” her bird-friendly installation with artist Ellen Driscoll.

Architect Joyce Hwang envisions more equitable design for all creatures. 

The phrase “strictly for the birds” has always had a negative connotation of triviality or worthlessness. But to Joyce Hwang, they’re fighting words.

Hwang, associate professor in the School of Architecture and Planning, studies the confluence of nature and design, advocating for more bats in belfries, birds nesting in eaves, and for plants sprouting from spaces built for them—and us. 

Hwang is a pioneer of what was formerly a “fringe” subset of landscape architecture, now known as green or ecological architecture. The last decade saw increased interest in this field, generating media attention, international conferences and research groups, and an influx of new professionals designing for and with nature.

Hwang, who directs graduate studies in the architecture department, works with students, alumni and other collaborators to create structures that provide shelter, social spaces and even tracking capabilities for wild flora and fauna. Her goal is to create an architectural aesthetic that goes beyond how we typically interact with nature—the birdhouses and beehives that give us pleasure or safety at arm’s length—to better co-exist with our non-human neighbors. 

In Buffalo, Hwang’s best-known UB-led installations, “Bat Cloud” and “Elevator B,” provide shelter to bats and honeybees, respectively, while letting humans experience each animal’s habitat and behaviors in new ways.

Elevator B.

“Elevator B” is a bee habitat made of steel, glass and cypress. The exterior hexagonal shapes are inspired by the natural honeycomb.

Furthermore, Hwang’s work critiques what she calls the “pleasures and horrors of our contemporary ecologies,” explained as the tension between viewing wild animals as simultaneously cute and harmless (“oh, look at the fuzzy raccoon”) yet distasteful or destructive. 

“We love bird-watching, but we don’t like it when pigeons poop on our cars,” Hwang laughs.

As the planet’s warming affects how we build our own communities, Hwang and other architects are calling for increased study of Earth’s complex systems, while  we grapple with a multi-species extinction that threatens humanity as well.

Learning how animals operate in the wild, she says, can help us use existing resources to design for human society more efficiently. 

“We can take inspiration from the natural world to find a way to build that’s less extractive than we are right now,” she says, noting how birds use found materials to make effective, and often beautiful, nests.

Hwang, a native of California and a registered architect in New York, attended Cornell and Princeton universities, and has worked professionally in San Francisco, Philadelphia and Spain, applying her own inspiration in landscapes throughout the world. 

In the “For Our Neighbors” installation, a 2022 commission by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Hwang and other architects created birdhouses for the gardens, paired with sound works by well-known composers and musicians. 

Hwang was also featured in MoMA’s 2022 documentary series, “Our Built Ecologies,” along with four other internationally known architects. In her film segment, Hwang explores Buffalo’s dilapidated grain silos, highlighting wild grasses peeking through missing windows and birds nesting in cracks of these buildings as examples of how nature reclaims manmade spaces for its own. 

In 2021, she was chosen as a design research fellow for the prestigious “Exhibit Columbus,” an annual academic-based arts program in Columbus, Indiana. In a project titled “To Middle Species, with Love,” Hwang’s team built a grove of wooden shelters for these “middle species”: her term for the bats, birds, turtles and other small animals that we often encounter every day. 

Working with a diverse group of biologists, designers and musicians, she hired alumni and students from several UB graduate studios to help build models, research the city’s architecture and generate design ideas. 

Hwang also wants to bring new faces to study and teach architecture at UB.

As a woman and first-generation Taiwanese American, Hwang wants architectural conversations to encompass traditionally underrepresented groups, including minorities and Indigenous communities. She has actively promoted diversity within her department and throughout the school since she organized, as a young UB professor, a woman-led architecture conference in 2012. Through her own practice and design group, called Ants of the Prairie, she also taps such students and alumni in her professional projects, including collaborations with Dark Matter U and US Architects Declare, two collectives focused on improving equity and access in architecture. 

“They, as well as many of us here at UB, are invested in working on an intersectional approach to climate change, social justice and biodiversity loss,” she says.

And there is nothing trivial about that.

Story By Lauren Newkirk Maynard 
Photograph by Douglas Levere

Published March 21, 2023