Located in Tifft Nature Preserve along the Lake Erie shoreline
in South Buffalo, “Bat Cloud” is a high-tech habitat
A dark cloud hovers above a stand of Eastern cottonwood trees in
Tifft Nature Preserve, 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, UB assistant professor of architecture, with assistance from
current and former 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 this year and her bachelor’s degree in 2009,
both from UB, managed the design and production process of the
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 principal 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
eastern upstate New York in 2006. The fungus, which afflicts brown
bats, causes them to emerge from hibernation early, leading to them
to 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 this rapidly deteriorating
situation by focusing public attention on the essential role bats
play in our ecology. This, she thought, would make the endangered
animals more sympathetic and help members of the public see their
plight as crucial, not only to the bats’ well being, but to
their own as well.
“Bats are so misunderstood,” Hwang says.
“They’re seen as ‘bad’ animals—scary
and no good. But they really are very helpful,” she explains,
pointing out that the loss of bats—which eat a vast number of
disease-carrying insects, notably mosquitoes—destabilizes
ecosystems and leads to an increase in the use of chemicals for
Bats also serve an important pollination function and disperse
plant seeds as well. An excellent fertilizer, bat guano also 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 the dark.
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 design phases of
Bat Cloud, Hwang consulted with Katharina Dittmar, UB assistant
professor of biological sciences, to assure that the project would
best meet the needs of the bats.
Hwang 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.
Hwang also noted during the many summers she spent in the south
of Spain 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 in Griffis Sculpture Park in East Otto, Cattaraugus County.
She says she built it to promote visibility to the presence of the
bat and its current plight. 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.
Bat Cloud was designed and installed as part of “Fluid
Culture,” the year-long lecture, arts and media series
sponsored by the UB Humanities Institute. The 2012 series 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,” Hwang says, “are an integral part of
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, being held Aug. 29
through Nov. 25 in Venice, Italy.