In a rural valley in northwestern Nevada, home to expanses of wetlands, sagebrush meadows and dozens of natural springs, lies a 3,800-acre off-grid parcel of land known as the Fly Ranch. Owned by Burning Man, the community that annually transforms the nearby playa into a colorful freewheeling temporary town, Fly Ranch is part of a long-term project to extend the duration of the festival experimental ethos beyond the week-long event. In 2018, the group, in collaboration with The Land Art Generator Initiative, solicited proposals for sustainable systems for energy, water, food, shelter and regenerative waste management at the site.
For recent MIT alumni Zhicheng Xu MARch ’22 and Mengqi Moon He SMArchS ’20, Fly Ranch presented a new challenge. Xu and He, who have a background in landscaping, urban planning and architecture, were researching the use of wood as a building material and thought the competition would be a good opportunity to experiment and present. some of their initial research. . “But because of our background at MIT, we approached the problem with a very critical eye,” says Xu, “We asked ourselves: who are we designing for? What do we mean by shelter? Shelter who?
Architecture for non-human worlds
Their winning proposal, “Lodgers”, selected from 185 entries and currently on display at the Weisner Student Art Gallery, asks how to design a structure that will accommodate not only the human inhabitants of the earth, but also the more than 100 plant and animal species that inhabit the desert. In other words, what would an architecture that is centered not only on human needs, but also on those of the wider ecosystem, look like?
Developing the project during pandemic shutdowns, Xu and He pored over a long list of hundreds of local plants and animals – from red-tailed hawks to desert rats to bullfrogs – and designed the project by thinking about these species. Combining new computer tools with traditional Western Shoshone and Northern Paiute designs found in brush shelters and woven baskets, the organic thatched-roof structures called “tenants” feature bee towers, nesting forms for birds, sugar-glazed logs for breeding beetle larvae, and compost toilets. and environmental education classrooms for humans.
But it wasn’t until they visited Fly Ranch in the spring of 2021 that Xu and He deepened their understanding of the project. For several nights, they camped there with other competition finalists, alongside longtime park rangers and Burners, eating communal meals together and learning first-hand about the intricacies of the desert. At one point during the trip, they were caught in a sandstorm while driving a trailer loaded with supplies down a dirt road. The experience, they say, was an important lesson in humility and how such extremes made the landscape what it was. “That’s why we later came to the term ‘dealing with friction’ because it’s still there,” he says, “there’s no solution.” Xu adds, “The different elements of the earth – water, heat, sound, wind – are the elements we have to deal with in the project. These little moments made us realize that we needed to reposition ourselves, stay humble and try to understand the land.
Leave no trace
While the deserts of the American West have long been vulnerable to human hubris – from large-scale military procedures to mining operations that have left deep scars on the landscape – Xu and He designed the “tenants” to leave a light footprint. Instead of viewing buildings as permanent solutions, with the environment seen as an obstacle to be overcome, Xu and He see their project as a “temporary inhabitant”.
To reduce carbon emissions, their goal was to adopt low-cost, low-tech recycled materials that could be used without the need for special training or heavy equipment, so that the construction itself could be open to all members of the community. In addition to lumber collected on site, the project uses two-by-four lumber, among the most common and least expensive materials in American construction, and thatch for the facades created from the dry reeds and bulrushes which grow in abundance in the region. If the structures are at a standstill, the use of renewable materials enables them to decompose naturally.
Fly Ranch at MIT
Now the MIT community has the opportunity to experience part of the Nevada desert and be part of the participatory design process. “We are very fortunate to be funded by the MIT Arts Council,” says Xu. “With this funding, we were able to expand the team, so that the format of the exhibition was more democratic than just design and construction.” With help from classmates Calvin Zhong ’18 and Wuyahuang Li SMarchS ’21, Xu and He brought their proposal to life. The ambitious immersive installation includes architectural models, field recordings, projections, and artifacts such as turtle and fish skeletons collected from the Fly Ranch. Inside the structure is a large communal table, where Xu and He hope to hold workshops and conversations to encourage more dialogue and collaboration. Having learned from the design, Xu and He are now gathering feedback from MIT professors and colleagues to take the project to the next level. In the fall, they will debut the “tenants” at the Lisbon Architecture Triennialand hopes to soon build a prototype at the Fly Ranch itself.
The structures, they hope, will inspire greater reflection on our entanglements with the non-human world and the possibilities of architecture designed to be impermanent. Humans, after all, are often only “occasional guests” in this landscape and part of the great cycles of rise and fall. “For us, it’s a beautiful expression of how different species are entangled on the earth. And we, as humans, are just another small piece in this tangle,” Xu says.
Created as a gift from the MIT Class of 1983, the Wiesner Gallery honors former MIT President Jerome Wiesner for his support of the arts at the Institute. The gallery was completely renovated in the fall of 2016, thanks in part to the generosity of Harold ’44 and Arlene Schnitzer and the MIT Arts Council, and now also serves as the central meeting space for MIT’s student arts programming, including the START Studio, Creative Arts Competition, Student Arts Advisory Council, and Arts Scholars. “Lodgers: Friction Between Neighbors” is on view at the Wiesner Student Art Gallery through April 29 and was funded in part by MIT’s Council for the Arts, a group of alumni and friends with a strong commitment to the arts and serving the MIT community.