Plant life bursts through the wire mesh floor. Circuit boards and coffee cups spread out on a laminate table. A narrow mattress floats incongruously on high wheels with wide spokes.
In “FIELD-STATION”, an architectural firm based in Houston HOME OFFICE explores the confluence of forestry, activism and place-based research. The six-panel mural, commissioned by the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis, represents and embodies both a democratic vision of collaborative technology and participatory ecological learning.
“‘FIELD-STATION’ experiments with environmental sensing, observation and measurement architectures,” said Brittany Utting, co-founder of HOME-OFFICE. “The project asks the question: how are these spatial practices related to climate change, and how can we rethink our own relationships to ecology and landscape?”
Housed in the first-floor commons of Anabeth and John Weil Hall, “FIELD-STATION” was inspired by the growth of participatory “citizen science” projects, in which members of the public are recruited to help gather and/or analyze the data.
Utting and HOME-OFFICE co-founder Daniel Jacobs wanted to design a compact, lightweight yet sturdy living/working/lab space that could support a range of citizen science activities, from verifying from monitoring air quality and pollution levels to assessing habitat health, collecting evidence of ecological disturbances and reporting information on resource use.
The result, which was installed over the summer and will occupy the Weil Project wall throughout the 2022-23 academic year, is equal parts building plan, character study and utopian speculation.
“We’re very interested in the pragmatics of construction,” said Jacobs, who earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the Sam Fox School in 2010. He points out that each of the six panels is constructed using the same simple materials and methods that are specified in the drawing itself. “The device holding the panels becomes a proxy for the structure.”
At the same time, the mural’s imagery explores the potential life of the station through a series of almost romantic details. In one vignette, a group of beach chairs are gathered around a whiteboard displaying part of Ecuador’s 2008 constitution, which granted legally enforceable rights to nature. In another, wire mesh storage cages are filled with towels and books by environmental technologist Jennifer Gabrys.
“Much of the architecture is mystifying and inaccessible,” Utting explained. “But what if you could reframe architecture to make it something more user-friendly, something you can build yourself, by hand? An architecture that allows a multiplicity of ways of being in a landscape?
With its flexible and inexpensive design, “FIELD-STATION” could easily be adapted to a variety of conditions, from remote wilderness to managed forest to the familiar – if sometimes overlooked – areas of suburban sprawl and ex-urban.
“I think these kinds of peripheral spaces deserve environmental study,” Jacobs observed. While tackling the broader forces of global warming and deforestation remain imperative, “people are also interested in examining the landscapes right outside their doorsteps.”
Utting concludes, “Imagine if every neighborhood had a local field station.”
Jacobs and Utting will discuss their practice at 6 p.m. on Thursday, September 8, as part of the Sam Fox School’s Fall Public Lecture Series. The conference is free and open to the public and takes place in the Steinberg Auditorium. For more information, visit samfoxschool.wustl.edu.