Photo: Shawn Records (All Rights Reserved)
posted by patrick leonard
Portland can be a remarkably self-aware city. Heralded as a model for progressive civic development, we take it as our cue to hold a series of events, and even a genre-bending performance about how we can guide our future growth. Yet, from all of these discussions, a local and very non-commercial client has been excluded – the fauna. The further that we have pressed our development out against the edges of our cities, the more frequently we hear (admittedly funny) stories of Bobcats re-settling a foreclosed homes in Southern California. It seems then that Haeg’s Animal Estates arrives in Portland at a perfect juncture in our self-referential urban-planning zeitgeist.

Model homes came of age in a time when cities had no more space to provide for development, leading the first suburban pioneers out into the rural fringes and wildlife habitat. There, our aesthetics overrode natural needs. The design briefs that Haeg prepares for each of his “clients” frequently lament that native habitat has been systematically removed because it does not fit our ideal model of natural beauty – snags are cleared and forests razed. Haeg’s Animal Estates do no less than propose the reverse engineering of this development trend. Co-opting the model home format, they provide an opportunity for fauna to colonize underused parts of an urban area, reclaiming just part of the ground that we have taken. This effort is an act of reparation, a move to atone for our oversights.
The Portland Estate is a departure from his past prototypes, which had many more parallels with the classic American “estates” of individual, disconnected, suburban homes. This iteration is the animal equivalent of high-density, mixed-income condos. Ironically, in his proposal for New York, a city that depends on vertical growth, Haeg’s homes clustered around a concrete pond in a sort of urbanized idyll. In Portland, the estate follows the form of a rotted and hollowed-out tree snag, acknowledging the overlapping uses of multiple species. Haeg’s concerns are the same of all civic planners, who must consider the rhythms of different modes of use, designing their structures to accommodate many parallel needs. Compared with the New York piece, which leaned heavily toward aesthetics, the Portland prototype is a more refined proposal in terms of its actual implementation.
Haeg, however, remains remarkably sensitive to setting, designing his estates to be sympathetic with their surroundings. Playing on the visual language of contemporary architecture, the Estatesmimic traditional wild habitat. For his New York Estates entry to the Whitney Biennial, Haeg reflected the strong, modernist lines and imposing silhouette of Marcel Breuer’s building, recasting the courtyard as a concrete canyon. The mason bee dwelling, in particular, recalls an early Richard Serra or Carl Andre sculpture. Aesthetically, Haeg’s Portland Estates respond shrewdly to our local, re-purposed, DIY building idiom. The rock pile hibernaculum for a local garter snake recycles busted concrete slabs in place of boulders and the roughly-hewn wood shingles would blend seamlessly alongside a home remodel from the Rebuilding Center. By acknowledging the wood grains and reclaimed materials of our local architecture, Haeg creates vernacular structures that still pay homage to natural environments.
Haeg’s work identifies the natural feedback that exists when architects look to nature for their models. The Portland Estate stands not just as a manufactured “snag” but also as a mock-chimney. Displaced from their homes, wildlife have targeted the parts of our buildings that offer what they require. Squirrels and raccoons roost in our attics. Wasps nest in our eaves. Swifts flock to our chimneys. In terms of adaptive re-use, these species have treated our constructions as equivalent to their found nests in the wild. For that reason, it is just as important that Haeg’s design references a man-made structure as it does logs and boulders; this choice re-integrates our built environment with nature in a meaningful and positive way.
And yet, when commissioned for a museum, as in the case of the New York Estates, Haeg’s work raises the question of intention. Building habitats in a museum courtyard won’t likely attract regionally-extinct species. Falcons may adapt to skyscraper aeries and honeybees may nest atop apartments, but does a bobcat have a chance in Manhattan? When presented in this setting, does his piece merely become a symbolic gesture akin to naming the streets in a development after the former flora and fauna? It is a thought-provoking exercise, but a hard one to enact as practice.
With his Portland Estate, Haeg has refined his work to identify species that still inhabit area, situating Portland in a unique position to actually implement these “snags.” This move helps to distance the work from the limitations of the museum, making it much more of an activist stance in line with Haeg’s belief in “benevolent provocation.” On its surface, Animal Estates could seem like an exercise in landscape architecture, but in practice these model homes turn un-recognized spaces (our lawns and empty lots) into sites of dissent against our current path of development. Haeg’s proposal for the future of our region does not look relentlessly forward, but instead takes its cues from the original uses of our city.
Haeg’s Animal Estates are typically accompanied by his Sundown Schoolhouse series of educational and artistic workshops – at Reed College’s Cooley Gallery, a geodesic tent brimming with videos, sounds, and a library of local wildlife information fills in for Haeg’s geodesic Southern California home. There are still two final Tuesday tours with exhibition curator Stephanie Snyder and Cooley education outreach coordinator Gregory MacNaughton on September 16 and September 23 at 3:00 pm. See for more details.