Natural habitats have ceased to exist in the modern-day urban context. Habitats once permeated East Cambridge and its natural marshlands where a constant flow of life used to exist. Nowadays, the area is completely devoid of nature or natural habitats and has become a sea of asphalt with a few trees on the sidewalks and manicured lawns that do not support ecosystems at the slightest.
Sullivan Courthouse has been abandoned for years and has become an eye-sore to most and hated by all. The building has been set to be taken down multiple times, but the demolition never happened. This project aims to reuse the building in a way that creates a new form of “natural” habitats within the urban fabric. The project hopes to bring back the pre-urban conditions that once existed on the site, while creating a prototype and precedent to other abandoned buildings to be reclaimed by nature rather than remaining useless, hollow structures. The building will become a testing ground that tests new types of urban wilds that have yet to exist. The building houses labs and a test marsh, while giving opportunity for the residents of the area, and others, to enjoy a unique experience and unattainable views from East Cambridge.
What prompted the project?
Cambridge, for all its presupposed academic and tech prowess, lacks the basics of an urban environment – a collective green space. East Cambridge, in particular, yearned for a space to re-collect its disparate edges and populations. Residents have almost no access to nature or natural scenery, which prompted me to question, “how come?”. Cambridge was originally a marshland, yet no trace of its rich ecological and anthropological history remains today, a dreadful misstep on a site with incredible potential. There is a scenario where a park is added to the area and we deem the problem fixed; however, the project aims to do more than that. The intervention to the building becomes a testing ground for a strategy that would eventually be implemented across multiple cities, a solution not limited to East Cambridge.
What informed the choice of Sullivan Courthouse as site?
The studio was structured around Sullivan Courthouse as the site for intervention. The courthouse has been abandoned for decades now, and multiple architects and developers have submitted proposals for it, primarily housing proposals. However, the East Cambridge community has rejected these proposals and the building stands abandoned until this day. The challenge posed by the studio was to re-purpose this quasi – judicial megastructure in a way that would integrate community benefit and contemporary culture.
How and to what extent has wildlife been affected in areas as Cambridge? Are there any species which have migrated to other sites and or have evolved and developed to meet the contemporary city?
Wildlife in Cambridge has been tremendously impacted by industrialization of different velocities. Marshes have been covered up and buried with landfill that the city was then built upon. More recently, the tech boom in Cambridge has precipitated in a building explosion, with labs, startups, and various technologically-driven operations. Most, if not all, of the plant species have been unable to repopulate because of the resultant pollution, and frankly, lack of space. Some animal species have migrated to other unaffected parts of Massachusetts that are now regarded as natural preservations, like Belle Isle Marsh, but many have fallen victim to the industrial revolution. There are many studies about urban evolution of species and how they have adapted, or not, to the changing conditions of urban living; however, that was beyond the scope of the research for this project.
To what extent does the lack of nature within high density cities affect the life of the cities inhabitants?
Other than the fact that greenery absorbs much of the pollution we produce in cities (from vehicles, factories, etc.), there are undeniable psychological health benefits to being exposed to nature on a daily basis. Much of the project tackles that by providing spaces where the users would engage with nature in some mechanism (proximity, sight, scent, research).
What is your take on the future of cities and urban planning? Will we continue to construct even denser cities?
I don’t believe that density is the enemy here. In a sense, rich ecological environments, like rainforests, are dense by nature. The lesson to be learned there is the symbiosis of the density – a density of heterogeneity. I do think that cities will only continue to become denser, but a city could be dense and ecologically rich at the same time. That is precisely what the project is trying to achieve: the existence of naturally occurring habitats within an urban context. Humans must acknowledge that the Earth is a shared space and that buildings should not be designed exclusively for our benefit. If architects designed their buildings with an integrated ability to accommodate its local natural habitats, the contemporary city will inherently become greener and more inclusive without necessarily being less dense.
Are there any case studies which combine architecture and nature in an ‘effective’ and ‘sustainable’ way?
Most vernacular architecture does that, actually. Historically, people built with accessible materials that were naturally occurring in their regions, and that is inherently sustainable. The architecture and the environment homogenize and become one. North Africans have been building with rammed Earth for centuries, and until today in some parts of Egypt, for example. Granted, urban environments are much more complex, with many more moving parts, serving a far greater selection of people, but there is something to be learned by studying vernacular settlements and how they integrated with their surroundings as a consolidated ecosystem.
How did you choose the typology of flora to include? What research did you do in choosing the various natural elements?
I researched historical fauna and flora that used to exist in East Cambridge and native to the Massachusetts area. These are plants and animals that previously lived and thrived in this part of the country and under these weather conditions. Massachusetts was originally all marshlands and swamps, and most of Boston and Cambridge are built on landfill. Every natural aspect that was chosen to be incorporated in the project is native to the area and existed in pre-urban conditions. It is a way to encourage and ensure a future for what had once flourished.
What are your hopes for the project tomorrow and in 20 years time?
This project was designed in hopes of it becoming a precedent for not only other abandoned buildings, but also ones that have yet to be designed. I do not know for a fact whether this intervention would be successful in what it is trying to achieve in regards to reviving the pre-urban ecologies of East Cambridge, but that’s okay. The premise of the project is to create a testing ground, or a playground for scientists if you will, that would give a platform for research in this field. It is meant as starting point for a much larger discourse surrounding the future of cities and their integration with nature as one intact ecosystem.
Are you interested in exploring this relationship further?
I think we all have to. Climate change is real, it’s happening, and it’s obliterating our wildlife. As architects, we have the power (or at least believe we do) to inflict some degree of change on how our cities run. So yes, I do plan on further exploring the notion of architecture and nature as one, and investigating different ways of incorporating urban ecologies into buildings.
What is for you the architects most important tool?