12 Jun, 2009

Tower blocks for animals: Why not?

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Encouraging animals to live in skyscrapers might sound batty, but architects have long loved designing buildings for non-human clients

A tower block for animals. Have you ever heard of such a thing? Millions worldwide might smirk that most high-rises are pretty inhuman anyway, but Garnett Netherwood, an architectural practice based in Leeds, has just won an international competition to design a number of 12-metre high residential towers along the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. The towers, which are due to be raised in Holbeck, to the south of the city, will be made from bits and pieces of demolished buildings and are planned to house a variety of creatures. Where beetles once feared to creep and birds rarely sang, the hope is that this regenerated “village” may yet come alive with the hum of bees, the darting of bats and the banshee wail of foxes.

Whether or not everyone will get along happily in such confines has yet to be seen, but if my own house – which has everything from bees in the walls to sparrows nesting in the doorcases – is anything to go by, animals who share close quarters seem to get on famously, at least when they’re not eating one another.

And surely living alongside animals has made us humans more humane than we might otherwise have been. Nurturing rabbits, goldfish, cats and dogs encourages a sense of responsibility, develops selfless affection in children and keeps us all from being horribly self-obsessed. One of the most touching sights in poor homes worldwide is a lovingly tended animal house, perhaps no more than a customised cardboard box.

Garnet Netherwood aren’t the first to aim a little higher. Humans with a fondness for animals can go, it has to be admitted, a little batty, as any number of companies in the US specialising in architect-designed dog houses bear witness to. Frank Lloyd Wright designed kennels, (the Berger house in San Anselmo, California boasts one), and plenty of other American architects have followed in his paw-prints. The latest US models boast air-conditioning, heating and webcams; some even have security features, to protect prize pooches from villains who steal pedigree dogs to order.

Ten years ago, I happened on an entire exhibition devoted to kennel design at The Oakland Museum of California. It was called Dog Haus: Architecture Unleashed and featured everything from designs for a doggy version of the Arc de Triomphe to what you might call Bow-wowhaus architecture for the modern-minded canine. One of the best architect-designed dog houses I’ve yet come across is an ultra-modern kennel designed by Tadao Ando, the famous Japanese architect, for his akita named Le Corbusier.

There has been, of course, a long tradition of architects designing impressive stables for horses and, especially in India and Persia, exquisite birdcages. British farmers, meanwhile, took to creating special buildings for their prize pedigree animals. One of the finest, and most charmingly eccentric of these, is the Neo-Grecian pigsty that John Warren Barry, a Yorkshire landowner, designed for a pair of his favourite pet pigs not far from Fylingthorpe, a village near Robin Hood’s Bay on the east coast. Even Napoleon, the Stalinesque porker who ruled George Orwell’s Animal Farm, would have been impressed with such grandiloquent accommodation. The wonderful sty has been owned by the Landmark Trust since 1988; if anyone ever says you live like a pig, tell them: yes, like a Fylingdales pig. There are few smarter weekend cottages.

There will always be those who say such designs are unnatural, even a little decadent (especially, perhaps, duck islands for the gentry paid for by the taxpayer), but not all animals are great homemakers. Those we have tamed, especially, need some form of architecture to live in. And now that so many animals are vanishing, from bees to sparrows, we do well to offer them homes.

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