A pair of professional arborists, licensed to climb and care for trees, were perched high in the branches of a 110-foot Monterey cypress in the Presidio park of San Francisco. Secured by harnesses and a web of rock-climbing ropes used for rappelling down the trunk, they were awaiting instructions from the ground.
“Could you try the limb below your right foot?” said their boss, landscape designer Peter Good.
“Is there any way to get the nest to stand more vertically?” asked gallerist Cheryl Haines.
It took a team of four people a full day to do what birds do so naturally: find a good and safe place to build their nests.
Only in this case the goal was visibility from the ground for the sake of park visitors, as well as safety for any nest residents.
For the bird “nests” being placed in the tree were actually manmade art objects: nine exquisitely patterned blue-and-white porcelain vessels designed by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei as part of a larger public art project developed by Haines through her nonprofit foundation For-Site.
For the project, Haines invited a number of artists, architects and designers to create habitats for the animals of the Presidio, a 1,491-acre national park that used to be a military base. Of 25 proposals, she chose 11 to produce.
“The participants designed homes for animals, much as an architect designs a house for a client,” says Haines, now watching the third of Ai Weiwei’s porcelain nests—envisioned as a shelter for the Western screech owl—positioned in the tree.
The total project cost around $900,000, she said, with For-Site raising all funds through private donors. “It’s meant to be a gift to the park and everyone who uses it,” she says. Yes, she says, animals included.
The realized works are wildly different in look and feel, ranging from a pyramid-shaped fox den made by the Danish architects CEBRA out of surplus Presidio cypress to a flowering amphitheater-shaped feeder for Anna’s Hummingbirds courtesy of L.A. designer Don Chadwick.
L.A. architects Taalman Koch created another—more modern, even futuristic--home for the tiny screech owl in the form of a multifaceted dome made out of aluminum, while L.A. artist/designer Fritz Haeg made a wooden tower for a handful of species, from snakes to bats, to inhabit.
Another highlight, quite literally, is a set of 10 bright yellow steel chairs that Jensen Architects of San Francisco planted in and around a meadow to pay homage to the blue heron. The chairs can be used for bird-watching or bird-perching, and droppings are already visible.
These projects, installed at various spots towards the northern base of the Presidio this month, will be up until May 2011. You can pick up a map at the exhibition pavilion for a self-guided tour that runs about three miles. The pavilion, designed by Ogrydziak/Prillinger out of recycled shipping containers, also has a great view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
The Presidio Trust, a government agency that oversees the park, bills it “the first site-specific art exhibition” to take place in a national park. “It’s the first we’ve identified,” adds Michael Boland, planning director for the Trust. (He clearly does not count Andy Goldsworthy’s soaring wooden spire, the first project that For-Site realized in the Presidio, as an “exhibition.”)
“There’s a long history of artists like Ansel Adams or Albert Bierstadt who interpreted national parks through their photographs or paintings,” Boland says, “But there isn’t so much when you look at artists interpreting national parks using sculptural interventions or site-specific projects.”
Boland said the new project is meant to highlight the park’s “incredible biodiversity,” noting that some 300 species of native plants, 200 species of birds and 60 species of bees make their home in the park—"not just in the wild areas but in the more developed regions as well.”
Whether the animals will make themselves at home in the artworks is an open question. Some of the projects, like Ai Weiwei’s nests, “are intended perhaps to coax an animal who no longer lives here back into residency,” says Haines. “Others are for actual animals that live here, what Fritz Haeg calls ‘the animal client.’”
Haeg, the category-defying artist, architect, gardener, urbanist and educator, explains what he means by the term. “I have an architecture background, and I put on my architect hat when I design things for animals,” he says.
“They don’t happen to have money and they don’t happen to have language—so our communication is mediated by wildlife experts. But animals are equal partners in our cities.”
For the Presidio, he created a hollowed-out wooden tower (like a dead tree or “snag”) where species from the California slender salamander to the pygmy nuthatch songbird to the coast garter snake could squat. He worked with Haines to place his tower near a parking lot so it could serve a more urban animal population.
An earlier prototype was shown in 2008 in Portland in the Reed College art gallery, but this version was built with thicker-grade wood and weatherproofed to survive the rainy season.
“This is the first time the Snag Tower will be outside,” Haeg says. “And I’m excited to see what happens.” He does not, however, plan to closely monitor the animal occupants or activity.
“I’m not interested in numbers, that’s what distinguishes this from advocacy-oriented wildlife projects. I’m more interested in capturing people’s imagination with architecture they can build themselves on their own property.”
Reached by phone in China, Ai Weiwei also spoke of the imagination. He said that he’s always had a thing for owls, dating back to his first sculpture in 1976—a ceramic owl. (He says there is no connection, however, between his new owl’s nests and his so-called Bird’s Nest, the Olympic Stadium that he helped to design in Beijing.)
“I’ve always been fascinated by this animal who is supposed to sleep with one eye open and one closed. In China the owl is traditionally connected to the world of the dead, the world we cannot see and experience.”
He decided to use the classical form of a Ming Dynasty blue-and-white patterned porcelain vessel as the nest, adding a hole to serve as an entrance on one side, because of its level of sophistication.
“These objects are superbly crafted for the Imperial Court,” he says. “I thought it would be very nice to put them in nature because they’re so artificial.”
To install the “nests” without digging into the bark of the cypress tree, For-Site hired a metalworker to make a rather minimal stainless steel holster with two cuffs to hold each vessel. Nylon straps secured to the back of the holster were belted around the tree trunk or limbs.
“We had to make sure that artworks would not upset the plant or animal life in the park,” says Haines. “We also didn’t want to attract animals through artificial means—no feeding and no lighting.”
The L.A. architects Taalman Koch kept this in mind while designing their project: a geodesic dome for the screech owl, perched some 15 feet high on a tripod. Linda Taalman, who works with her husband Alan Koch, says their point of departure was researching the tiny bird on the Audubon magazine web site.
“Owls are such interesting creatures because they don’t build their own nests,” says Linda Taalman. “They’re the perfect client for an architect because they need someone else to design the space.”
The geodesic dome they built consists of mass-produced laser-cut and folded aluminum panels, not entirely unlike the architects’ celebrated “itHouse” for human clients. “The dome is also pre-engineered system, and its material is also aluminum,” Taalman notes.
Still, the architects did tailor their home for the screech owl, devising a sizable dome “to give this little creature a more dramatic presence,” with a wooden structure inside it to create a cozier living space. They provided ventilation and draining.
And they wrapped the aluminum poles supporting the dome in hemp so that should a baby bird fall out of the dome, it could climb back up as if it were climbing a tree. (Yes, the architects have a young daughter.)
In some ways, then, the owl dome certainly seems like a more practical structure than Ai Weiwei’s porcelain owl habitat. But what are the chances a screech owl, whose trills have not been heard in the Presidio for nearly a decade, will actually find its way here?
“There’s a hopefulness to our project,” Taalman says. “Maybe another bird will move into it, but we really have our fingers crossed that the screech owl will actually find it somehow.”
She mentions maybe listing the bird home on a rental property web site she likes. “What is the equivalent of the Internet for owls? We’d like to get the word out.”