To understand the mesocosm, one might recall the biodomes or artificial enclosures depicted in sci-fi movies, delicately enclosing habitable environments on other planets, or deployed in the service of some new phylogenetic experiment. In this interview, Daniel Jacobs and Brittany Utting of HOME-OFFICE share their exploration of the mesocosm as a very real spatial typology. MESO-COSM: Medium Worlds, Worlding Mediums is a multimedia exhibition which examines the relationship between architecture and large-scale ecosystem experiments in the Gulf Coast region, speculating on future forms of urbanisation in Houston’s periphery. Displayed at the Mashburn Gallery at the Hines College of Architecture and Design, University of Houston in Texas, the exhibition presents 9 mesocosm case studies, 4 architectural experiments, and 1 full-scale prototype.
KOOZ MESO-COSM: Medium Worlds, Worlding Mediums is at once a research project, an exhibition and an experimental investigation, situated between the key infrastructures of planetary conditions and our ways of examining them. What prompted this research? What is the value of critically analysing these structures today?
DANIEL JACOBS | BRITTANY UTTING According to the systems ecologist Eugene P. Odum, mesocosm experiments are scaled between the microcosm of the laboratory and the macrocosm of the planet, enabling situated observations of real-world conditions. Organised as arrays of environmental “patches,” mesocosms allow scientists to observe ecosystems while controlling particular variables — such as carbon dioxide levels, soil toxicity, and rainfall amounts — in order to understand and respond to the impacts of anthropogenic climate change on the environment.
Mesocosm experiments can be found all over the world and in all types of landscapes [...] We wanted to study these infrastructures in order to develop new tools and possible architectures in the context of a changing climate.
We became fascinated by mesocosms through research we were doing about the spatial and environmental practices of biological field stations, which often host mesocosm experiments. We visited several local mesocosm facilities — one at the University of Houston Coastal Center (UHCC) and another at the Sam Houston State University Center for Biological Field Studies (CBFS) — learning about their long-term research projects, technical construction, and implications on environmental thinking. Mesocosm experiments can be found all over the world and in all types of landscapes, but information and representation about them is sparse. We wanted to study these infrastructures in order to develop new tools and possible architectures in the context of a changing climate.
KOOZ Since the rise of ecological thinking in the 1950s, mesocosms have been used to recreate ecosystems. with the ambition of studying the long-term effects of anthropogenic climate change on both aquatic and terrestrial ecologies. Through the project, you look at nine specific case studies which range in area of research, typology and site. What informed the choice of these nine case studies? How do they explore and unveil the complex systems of exchange, growth, and decay in the situated landscapes?
DJ | BU The nine case studies in the exhibition represent the vast array of different mesocosm types around the world: aquatic, terrestrial, riparian, arboreal, and marine. Examples include the Marine Ecosystems Research Laboratory (MERL) at the University of Rhode Island from 1976 that studied the effects of hydrocarbons and pollution on ocean ecosystems, the Artificial Stream and Pond System (FSA) of the German Federal Environment Agency in Berlin-Marienfelde that is studying the effects of wastewater and industrial chemicals on river ecosystems, and the Terrestrial Metatron of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Ariège, France that is studying species movements in grassland ecosystems. Each mesocosm is unique in its structure and experimental parameters. In particular, our research focused on mesocosms that research future climate scenarios. For example, the Marcell Experimental Forest (MEF) Spruce and Peatland Responses Under Changing Environments (SPRUCE) experiment contains a series of large open-air greenhouse structures that change the carbon dioxide levels (among other parameters) of a patch of forest, testing the long-term effects of greenhouse gasses on forest ecologies.
Beyond their pragmatic applications, mesocosms are also embodied and experiential spaces for learning about the environment. A critical part is their relationship to the site and the continuous practices of ecosystemic care they require.
KOOZ Beyond their strictly scientific agenda you mention that these mesocosm experiments also have pedagogical roles. What is the potential of critically understanding these effects? How can they nurture a diverse approach to architectural practice?
DJ | BU We were also interested in the architectural qualities of these mesocosms. Beyond their pragmatic applications, mesocosms are also embodied and experiential spaces for learning about the environment. A critical part of these experiments is their relationship to the site and the continuous practices of ecosystemic care they require. Alongside the technical labor of scientific research, there is also an intimate labor of tending and observing these habitats: tracking insects, counting plants, distributing water, and testing soil. These spaces are immersive micro-habitats full of sensing instruments and bursting with flora and fauna. Visiting and learning about different experiments around the world, we realised that mesocosms directly tie a climatological condition to a pedagogical experience. They create living laboratories not only for scientists and researchers, but also for students and members of the public to experience and understand how habitats and populations are affected by climate change.
KOOZ The title alludes to how these mesocosms exist simultaneously as both medium worlds and worlding mediums. Could you expand on this notion further by also touching upon the potential of using the mesocosm as a design instrument and ecological model for architecture and urbanisation?
DJ | BU We were first drawn to this research by the name mesocosm (meaning “medium world”), and how its etymology suggested a new way of worlding. We were interested in an architecture that could be understood as a type of mesocosm: a space that is both mediated by technical systems as well as a medium itself, entangled within planetary processes. Through this idea of “medium-ness,” we wanted to imagine how architecture could deploy the environmental logics of a mesocosm: participating with, and reacting to, its local conditions. Critically, mesocosms are immersed in the “real world” and are subject to the contingencies of weather, rainfall, animal and plant species migration, and pollinator activity. They are breathable, operable, and adjustable, suggesting ways to reimagine architecture’s relationship to the land and its hydrological, atmospheric, and biological cycles. Alongside the full-scale mesocosm that we constructed in the gallery, we also proposed four architectural prototypes that experiment with different climate systems and gradients of enclosure. Rather than operating as hermetically sealed boxes, these prototypes are instead open-ended and open-air environments. Using responsive louvers, retractable shading enclosures, solar capture roof systems, water catchment infrastructures, and low-impact foundations, these prototypes encourage new ways to calibrate temperature gradients and ventilation currents, deploying passive cooling systems such as thermal chimneys, and creating open-air spaces mitigated by large shading panels. Like mesocosms, all four types use tectonic frames that can be arrayed in multiple configurations, accommodating scalar shifts from small and intimate spaces to large collective areas extending through the structure.
We were interested in an architecture that could be understood as a type of mesocosm: a space that is both mediated by technical systems as well as a medium itself, entangled within planetary processes.
KOOZ The exhibition both presents a prototype of a mesocosm whilst also exploring two sites in Houston’s periphery. How does the work presented at these critical sites relate to Houston’s unique urbanism and ecologies?
DJ | BU The project is situated within two sites located in Houston’s periphery: the Greens Bayou Wetland Mitigation Bank and the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs. The Greens Bayou Wetlands Mitigation Bank is a protected landscape of ponds, marshes, and forests operated by the Harris County Flood Control District in East Houston, just outside the city limits. These wetlands offer “credits” that offset the loss of wetlands from development in the county. Addicks and Barker Reservoirs are critical flooding infrastructures operated by the Army Corps of Engineers. The reservoirs were built in the 1940s to reduce flooding risks downtown along Buffalo Bayou, draining a watershed of roughly 138 square miles in area. Today, both landscapes operate as urban voids, serving as flooding infrastructures and preserving wetland and coastal prairie ecosystems that are critical to the city’s resiliency during storm events. Yet both sites are also ecological islands, surrounded by encroaching suburban development.
We are interested in how these experiments can operate as a critical interface of climate care and environmental pedagogy for a variety of constituencies.
These patchy landscapes are paradigmatic of the city: spaces in which environmental systems and the economics of human settlement increasingly come into conflict. They also enable urbanisation to occur “elsewhere,” serving as an ecological offset and flooding defense to ameliorate the consequences of unchecked sprawl. This entanglement offers a critical space in which to reimagine the edges, patches, and peripheries of Houston. Can future modes of development also observe, conserve, and respond to these environmental transformations? By countering suburban development through densification and also introducing new ecological corridors and infrastructures for observation, the project offers a way to reimagine the relationship between Houston’s ecologies and urban forms.
KOOZ Beyond the exhibition how do you envision the research unfolding, what are your ambitions for this?
DJ | BU We see this project as the first step in a long-term research and design project engaged with scientists, designers, and various publics working to understand the effects of climate change on specific communities and ecosystems. We are interested in how these experiments — both through technical forms and architectural expressions — can operate as a critical interface of climate care and environmental pedagogy for a variety of constituencies. We hope to relocate the mesocosm prototype from the gallery out into a landscape, working to establish a space for citizen-science experimentation and ecosystem observation in Houston. Alongside relocating this “teaching mesocosm,” we hope to partner with local organisations who are working on environmental justice issues around the city, using the mesocosm to hold workshops for testing air pollution, monitoring water quality, and inspecting soil samples for ground toxicity in the petrochemical environments of Houston.
Brittany Utting is an Assistant Professor of Architecture at Rice University and co-founder of the research and design collaborative HOME-OFFICE. Her work examines the relationship between architecture, collective life, and environmental care. She previously taught at the University of Michigan as the 2017-2018 Willard A. Oberdick Fellow. She is the editor of the forthcoming volume Architectures of Care: From the Intimate to the Common (Routledge, 2023), and guest editor, with Albert Pope, of the special issue Log 60: The Sixth Sphere (Winter/Summer 2024).
Daniel Jacobs is an Instructional Assistant Professor in Architecture at the University of Houston and co-founder of the research and design collaborative HOME-OFFICE. His work centers around the labor production and material ecologies of the built environment. He previously taught at Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan and practiced as an Associate at SHoP Architects in New York. Daniel is a registered architect in Texas and New York.
Exhibition by HOME-OFFICE
Project Leads: Daniel Jacobs, Brittany Utting
Design & Research Team: Anna Brancaccio, Nino Chen, Maximilien Chong Lee Shin, Harish Krishnamoorthy, Jane Van Velden
MESO-COSM is sponsored by the Hines Scholar as Design/Design as Scholar (HdSd) Program of the Undergraduate Architecture Program at the Hines College of Architecture and Design, University of Houston. The exhibition is also funded by the Diluvial Houston Initiative, an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-supported project, and Rice Architecture.
For more information, visit www.home-office.co