Observing the Field
Luck, Fate, or Happy Accident?
In November of 2019, still unclear about what to do for my thesis, I read a New Yorker article that trees communicate with one another1 . Trees had nothing to do with what I had been thinking about, but I emailed Dr. Richard Karban, the scientist mentioned in The New Yorker, to ask if I could talk to him about his work. In preparing for my call with Dr. Karban, reading his books and publications, I noticed that ecological studies lend themselves well to architectural solutions. Scientists have to manipulate the environment for their studies. They excavate land to study roots, build tall structures to study trees, construct long networks of pipe to study water levels, and do all of this while having to be conscious about their footprint. I had formulated what I would ask him and how I could potentially turn this into a thesis project, but the conversation that ensued was far more impactful than I had expected.
After discussing his research and clarifying my interest in his work, we started to talk about the state of ecological studies in the United States. The efficacy of sensors and algorithms is a much-needed advancement to our understanding of the world, but this overemphasis on data-driven scientific studies is driving young ecologists away from conducting fieldwork. While sensors can register information far beyond what humans are capable of, using these devices as a proxy for understanding our environments runs the risk of missing the anomalies and narrowing the scientific scope to what everyone already believes is important. He emphasized that the best contemporary ecological research methodology combines observations, models, and manipulative experiments to arrive at a more complete explanation than any single approach could provide.
Architecture, much like this present trajectory of ecological studies that Dr. Karban presents, is often built on a pre-existing set of self-referential agendas without observing the economic, cultural, ecological, and material realities that confront our lives. Such practice has created a large gap between the discipline and the practical reality in which it is embedded. For architects to engage in larger issues that directly deal with the built environment, we need to expand our methodology beyond the insular disciplinary boundaries. Such an expanded and interdisciplinary work takes time and requires a series of ‘connecting the dot moments’ to make it work — not only to digest information that we are not familiar with but also to depend on other fields’ expertise in framing an architectural argument.
My conversation with Dr. Karban changed the way I approached my thesis. In some ways, I was looking to find a topic and a typology that I was familiar with, something that I would be comfortable making arguments around. Yet his comments on a ‘best ecological process’ made me realize that architecture, too, can benefit from expanding our modes of knowledge production. For my thesis, inspired by this personal overture into a new discipline, I designed a field station, home and lab for scientists conducting fieldwork. The project is sited in a decommissioned naval base airport in Jamaica Bay, New York, where the coastal habitation is thinning due to sea-level rise, the maritime forest is struggling to survive due to forest fragmentation, and the abandoned facilities have formed their own ecosystems from decades without maintenance. The stations are designed to observe and facilitate these transformations on and along the different edges of the site, functioning as ecological proxies by subjecting architecture to become part of the ecological cycle while measuring the stations’ weathering by and into nature over time. Dr. Karban’s work encouraged me to look at ecological transformation through the subjective viewpoint of plant life and to visit the research stations to experience how the trees were now being studied.
Unfortunately, three days before my scheduled trip to one such site, COVID-19 shut down all university facilities, including my intended site. My luck had perhaps run out, but my conversation with Dr. Karban and other scientists, anthropologists, and engineers gave me confidence that there is a place in architecture to be part of a bigger discussion, in this case, to elevate the study of ecological studies. Since then, I’ve decided to take fate into my own hands, and look to local sites of study where I could continue to push this discussion. This venture into a relative unknown started with a New Yorker article, some books, and a phone call, but a few months later, I am out in the Pinelands National Reserve in NJ, wondering how we can study how trees talk to one another.
- Michael Pollan, “The Intelligent Plant,” The New Yorker, December 16, 2013, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/12/23/the-intelligent-plant. ↩︎