20 December 2016

On birdwatching and architecture

An essay on flare versus function

The world of birding is a bit of a paradox. Birdwatching or birding is a wildly popular hobby that attracts millions of people worldwide, while at the same time birdwatching is considered to be very niche and it is, despite its massive popularity, not well known by the general public. Birdwatching has long roots, and in some basic ways it can be considered a modern version of of the hunter-gatherer mentality we see reflected in other hobbies like hunting or fishing, which is no longer done for survival purposes but rather for recreational purposes. Birdwatching however have evolved beyond the hunter-gatherer mind set. Birdwatching is in fact an expression of the modern naturalist science based culture. The desire to understand nature in all of its complexity is a key to understanding birdwatching. Birdwatching is a natural progression from Charles Darwins evolution theory to modern day popular naturalist icons like David Attenborough. Birdwatching is in many ways science for the masses. It is, alongside astronomy, the largest knowledge and science based hobby in the world where the boundaries to its field is pushed forward by a large base of very keen enthusiasts rather than a small base of specialist professionals. Today birdwatching is a global culture with millions of birdwatchers contributing to an ever growing knowledge base of everything related to birds. The plattforms on which birdwatchers communicate are numerous. There are endless magazines, online forums, websites, organisations, companies, etc, catering to every need and want in the birdwatching community. What they all share is a deep passion for birds and nature, wether it is for hard core science purposes like research into bird species taxanomy or the pure artistic exploration of bird art and bird photography. 

I have been a keen birder for 25 years, and I am practically raised on British birding literature. In fact the first time I heard of the place I know live, Varanger, was through Ian Lewingtons famous ´Rare Birds´ book from 1991. It described an arctic birdlife and species that seemed amazingly exotic to a kid growing up in fairly avarage Norwegian city suburbia. Years later, after much traveling and a master degree in achitecture, I realised that I simply had to become a birdwatching architect. Architecture education still seems to educate generalists. Architects are trained to become good at handling a very wide range of projects and skill sets, but not to become great at one niché or field within architecture. This is where I realised that an unexplored potential was lurking under the surface. This was the thought that was to evolve into the realisation of Biotope, the worlds first and only birdwatching architecture office.

The combination of being both a birder and an architect is rare one. This is where Biotope aim to make a difference. For Biotope birdwatching architecture is a full time project. We are not your ordinary architecture office doing the occasional bird hide project, as a fun ´side project´ or to boost the ´green profile´ of the company. We have seen many examples of architecture companies trying to do bird hides, and after studying this niche for years, we have also seen which mistakes that always repeat themselves. It is a lack of understanding of the birdwatching niché, culture, behaviors and needs that much too often result in architecture that does not answer properly these key issues. This is similar to the niche of bird art: It becomes obvious when it is a non-birding artist drawing a bird versus when a dedicated bird artist draws a bird. A bird artist will be aware of feather details and bird topography in a way a non birding artist can never match. In both cases the result is often what the general public would consider to be a good looking bird drawing, but the birdwatcher will quickly see that key details like for example feather layering may be wrong. In the field of birdwatching architecture it comes as no surprise that architects with a lack of dedication or interest in birds, often leaves us with bird hides with architectural flare over function. Or to put it bluntly: The result may look good but it doesn´t work. Recent decades focus on architecture as signal buildings and as extravagant statements from ´starchitects´ has left us with more flare than function. Surely flare and attention seems to be the goal of many projects, but in the world of birdwatching and nature conservation, where buildings are smaller and the needs are very different, architectural flare usually comes at the expense of function. 

Historically the first bird hides erected some 40-50 years ago look pretty much the same as todays model. The standard is the box hide and it seems there has been very little evolution in the design of bird hides. Bird hides started as adaptations of the classic and very simple british garden shed. A rectangular box designed for storing gardening tools had the appropriate dimensions and cheap building costs to become a basic bird hide. Everywhere we can find box hides, designed to hide people away from birds. Hiding people away from birds is often important, as many bird species are very sensitive towards disturbance. For this purpose the box hide makes sense. However the birdwatching scene becomes poor if this is our only take on bird hides. I have spent countless hours sitting in such standard box hides in Norway, in UK and many other countries. I have also spent countless days and nights outdoors in Norway, and realising all the various ways we could build hides that would accommodate a wider variety of functions and needs, beyond hiding away from the birds. This thinking kickstarted Biotope and it reminds me again of how much of a pioneering niché this is, and in a postive way it tells a story of something new happening. Being architects and working with nature demands a new and better understanding of nature. It clearly relates to the basics of architectures origin: the need for shelter and protection from the elements, but it also need to include the new naturalist approach of a highly developed culture of being in and understanding nature. 

A key understanding is that architecture is not a goal in itself, yet it is of the outmost importance of how we engage with nature. The understanding of the architect as someone working with nature in a meaningfull way, not at the expense of nature, is just emerging and the opportunities are wide ranging. Engage. 

Thank you. 

Tormod Amundsen / Biotope
www.facebook.com/biotope.no // twitter @BiotopeOffice

Work opportunities: We are looking for new colleagues! The Biotope office is based in Vardø, but we are working internationally. Currently we have projects in progress in Norway, UK, Russia, Denmark and Iceland. We aim to explore and expand the niché of birding architecture and architecture dedicated to experiencing nature. If you want to work with us you do not have to be a birder, but we are looking for people with a passion for nature! Every week we are recieving several requests from architects wanting to work with us. In particular students or recently graduated architects looking for a job or an internship position. We appreciate this very much. Based on all the requests we are getting we now aim to set up an internship program from 2017 and also to hire as we aim to grow our impact. If you are an architect, programmer, designer, birder or have skills that will help develop Biotope and our engagements with and for nature  - feel free to contacts us.