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RoTo, Spring Studio 2020


_Birds And Our Immersive Ecological Entanglement



one: Enchanted Toy (5 wks)

two: Urban Wildlife Sanctuary (10 wks)



Recently a friend asked me, “Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?” Hmm!?, I answered.

We were on a road trip to a nature preserve, Southern Arizona’s Ramsey Canyon, a birdwatching paradise. It was my first outing as a birdwatcher. He has been a birder for 3 decades. We spent a very long day with the Director of the preserve, walking and talking as we observed a symbiotically diverse community of creatures and plants.

On our long return drive, our conversation was framed by two big questions.


“How might we forge perspectives and enact practices which build resilience and community across species and spaces, constructing relationships with nonhumans that go beyond discourses of pollution, degradation, and destruction?”


“What type of creative process and Architectural Project might serve as an experimental lens to help us better understand and assess the different ways in which humans transform, engage, and interact with the nonhuman world?”


The context for the trip and these thoughts came from six books I began reading in parallel, four months earlier.


_the genius of birds ornithologist’s insight into the different varieties of bird intelligence.

_the hidden life of trees …about a forest ecologist’s deep knowledge of the forest as a social network.

_ecological thought …the profound implications of all forms of life being connected in a vast, entangling mesh.

_scale …the underlying simplicity that unites the complex and diverse phenomena of living systems, from cells to cities.

_la fontane…Reggio Children design an amusement and water park for birds, a Luna Park.

_global brain…how plants and animals, including humans, have evolved together as components of a worldwide learning machine.


At first I understood his question as rhetorical, but as I read through these books, making connections,

I realized the answer is no, we are not smart or empathic enough, not yet. Being an optimist, I have faith that our latent capacities for empathy, compassion, and altruism will manifest in the right context. So, our role is to create this context.


I have continued to re-read these books and imagined the extraordinary help I could get from the likes of you, with fresh ideas and beginners' minds, motivated with a great sense of adventure, to find an answer through our work together, creating the context to bring out the best in us.


Our way of seeing and knowing would be predicated on the dynamic interdependence of everything at all scales simultaneously, or as Tim Morton argues in the book Ecological Thought, “All forms of life are connected in a vast, entangling mesh. This interconnectedness penetrates all dimensions of life. No being, construct, or object can exist independently from the ecological entanglement.”


The trip to the nature preserve and the new thoughts in my head from intense and revealing dialogues and readings led me to this semesters design research project. In part it is a continuation of previous semesters' objectives; how to make learning as productive and fun as play, and how to focus the depth of insight in the Architectural Mind to take on the most epic challenges to the Human Enterprise.






What if a Toy was a learning machine; playful, adaptable, and transforming?

What if a Toy was a muse, a mentor, a storyteller, and a companion for life?


We will create an Enchanted Toy. It will be an inspired interpretation of a bird’s anatomy, personality, and mobility. Enchanted Toys are ordinary toys augmented and enhanced by emerging micro-technologies, sensors, actuators, wireless connection, and embedded processing, so that they become extraordinary. The enchanted toy then gains some remarkable power or ability that makes it more useful, more fun, more informative, more engaging, and more connected. The new reality upon us seems like a paradox. In the near term, the rate at which computers disappear will be in proportion to the rate at which information technology will increasingly permeate our environment and our lives. This is what we will be pondering in the first exercise, in a playful and serious manner, as we learn more about the benefits, real and projected, of the merging of toys, games, and electronic media into a seamless blend of information, storytelling, learning, and play. To design an enchanted toy, you will have to tap into the intelligence and experience of an adult and the innocence and imagination of a child. You will learn first-hand about the Beginner's Mind, seeing and thinking as if for the first time, without expectation. 

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few."

premise 1

We must learn to survive. This is why we play, to learn what we must and grow what we learn through an ever-expanding imagination. This is where fact and fiction intertwine, and trial and error meet.

Humans, and some other animals, devote much time and energy to exploring and obtaining information through play. Sometimes the search for information can be independent of a foreseeable profit, as if learning is reinforcing in and of itself. This is associated to our high degree of curiosity (attraction to anything unfamiliar), and our intrinsic desire to know and understand. This is also attributable to our most basic imprint, survival.


premise 2

Technology is getting smaller and smarter and fundamentally more responsive to our needs, and to some degree beginning to foresee our interests. 

Technology is atomizing and combining itself with many objects all around us and will continue to be woven into the background of our environment. Enchanted Toys enhanced through technology, sensors, actuators, wireless connection, and embedded processing will become extraordinary.



What if a Toy augmented our intelligence and heightened our curiosity?

What if a Toy was a learning machine, playful, adaptable, imaginative, and silly?

What if a Toy was a companion, a muse, and a storyteller?

What if a Toy learned from you as it adapted and matured as you do?

What if a Toy was by your side from cradle to grave?


play and learning

Play is the basis for informal learning.

Play is one of the brain's best forms of exercise.

Play is vital for problem solving and creativity.  

Play is vital to the development of social relationships, at any age.

Play opens the brain to new ideas via exploration and risk-taking.  

Play brings joy. 






1 mile along the Los Angeles River (Los Feliz Blvd to North Atwater Park)



A. Wildlife Center               (25,000sf),

B.  Luna Park                       (10,000sf),

C. Mini-linear Forest           (tbd)



Wildlife center, Aviary, 2 birdwatching towers, 2 birdwatching bunkers, 1 Luna Park (Reggio Emilia) , mini-forest habitat

From the POV of the bird we will study and interpret nest architecture. 

From the POV of the birder we will design birdwatching architecture.

From the POV of the naturalist we will create a place to experience the nexus of a river, nature, and urbanity.


Part A will be an education and research center, birding center, triage and long-term care facility, and enclosures

Part B will be an amusement park for all species of birds, with the objective of attracting birds and letting them play

Part C will be a forest of native species of trees and vegetation


study, analyze, and interpret bird anatomy, cognition, skeleton, flight, migratory patterns, biomimicry, and symbolism 



While our ancestors have been around for about six million years, the modern form of humans evolved about 200,000 years ago. The Human Enterprise as we know it is only about 10,000 years old. Scientists estimate, from fossils discovered 150 years ago, that Birds have been on the planet for 140 million years. Their evolution began in the Jurassic Period. If we are to survive longer than we can imagine, we should take pause and observe. There is a lot for us to learn from Birds.


To survive, we must understand how to sustain a long term vision in a short cycle world.

This semester, we will have Birds as our guides.

Birds are genius inventors, as was Da Vinci: navigators, builders, singers, pollinators, and ecosystem engineers. Leonardo was genius, pursuing a broad range of interests across many disciplines and domains of practice.

He relished a world in flux, and nature was his main source of research and inspiration. 


“Nature is the source of all true knowledge. She has her own logic, her own laws, she has no effect without cause nor invention without necessity…. In my works, I want to convey movement of everything that flows.” 

Leonardo Da Vinci

habitats and ecosystems 

The health of Birds and their habitat can be a barometer of the health of the broader ecosystem we share.

Their fate is intertwined with ours.


stories, biomimicry, and innovation

Biomimicry offers an empathetic, interconnected understanding of how life works and, ultimately, where we fit in. It is a practice that learns from and mimics the strategies used by species alive today.

Storytelling: metaphor and myth

Since the Stone Age, humans have been fascinated with birds. Their variety in color and size and a wide repertoire of songs and calls have been a source of inspiration for stories about human interactions with the natural world. Birds provide humans with pleasure, joy, and spiritual inspiration merely by their presence.


Innovative approaches have been developed to reconcile human development and nature conservation. 

We have a lot to learn from the organisms and ecosystems that surround us, and that have had to solve the same problems as we do, with a far greater economy of means.


Research and reference: 7 books

Your projects will be enriched with the ideas and insights contained in these books.

Write a synopsis of each book – 1 paragraph for each book – and work the ideas for each book into your story.


  1. the genius of birds          jennifer ackerman

  2. the hidden life of trees   peter wohlleben

  3. ecological thought          tim morton

  4. scale                                 geoffrey west

  5. la fontane                         reggio children

  6. global brain                      howard bloom

  7. growth and form              d’arcy wentworth thompson


scope of the project

urbanism, architecture, social dynamics and ecological entanglements, communications

scope of learning

ecological dynamics of the LA river as a habitat for birds - relational impacts 

scope of the challenge

this project is a gateway for you to shift from an anthropocentric (humankind as the most important creature) to an eco-centric position (placing value on all living things and the natural environment)


project program

the total size of the project spread along the east quay of the river is approximately 1 mile long and 40,000 sf in 5 parts. 

(define each of these and interpret them with your architectural mind, in writing, with a story - 6 characters.) 


1_wildlife center        25k sf  bird triage, orphanage, education, education, workshops

2_luna park               10k sf  amusement park from a bird’s pov

3_mini linear forest   00k sf  distributed along the river, for a diversity of species – from the birds pov 4_aviary                     00k sf  for the human pov 

5_birding towers (2)  225 sf  for 5 people each with multiple viewing platforms  

6_birding towers (2)  225 sf  for 5 people each



(trees, vegetation, wood, earth, stone, metal, composites, synthetics, polymers, metal netting)


general subjects (define, in writing, each of these and interpret them with your architectural mind)




_wildlife habitats 

_urban wilderness, park, landscape


_universal learning

_ecological empathy


why birds matter

credible research shows that healthy bird populations are essential to human welfare.


Birds keep farmers in business. 

Birds reduce insect pests in conventional alfalfa.

Birds protect our drinking water by preventing erosion.

Birds slow the spread of disease. 

Birds keep the furniture industry supplied with timber. 

Birds provide critical environmental data.

Birds are indicators of ecosystem health.

Birds are our last, best connection to a natural world.

Birds are beautiful.  

Birds bring us joy.



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