Designing Ecology

Community Partner Organization: REBAR, San Francisco:

CCA Faculty Leader: Nathan Lynch

Outside Experts: Oikonos Ecosystem Knowledge:

Goal: Create ceramic nesting modules to restore and protect seabird nesting areas on Ano Nuevo Island

Project website:

Ano Nuevo Island, a protected state reserve about an hour south of San Francisco, is famous for its elephant seals and sea lions. Lesser known but equally important are the little birds that build their nesting burrows just under the surface of the sand. Shifting soil and clumsy sea lions are very real threats to the fragile nests of the rhinoceros auklet, a "species of special concern" closely related to the puffin. The goal of this course, then, was to design and produce protective nesting modules that could withstand both soil erosion and the weight of larger animals, providing stable homes in which the birds could raise their chicks.

The class was under the direction of faculty member Nathan Lynch together with Matthew Passmore and Teresa Aguilera of REBAR, a San Francisco art and design studio. REBAR did more than just advise; they took an active teaching role, attending almost every class meeting and helping to develop the broader theoretical context of the project in relation to other human interventions in the landscape, from conservation to Land Art.

The nine students divided into three teams: team Rad Rhinos, team Gumby, and team Love Shack. Each team devised a design for a module, created a mold, and cast ceramic prototypes. Scientists at Oikonos, a nonprofit organization that has worked on the island since 1993, provided detailed specs: the required length of the tunnel, the size of the nest cavity, the need for an access portal for viewing the chicks.

"It was challenging to meet the requirements of both the birds and the scientists," says Sonja Murphy (Illustration 2011) of team Rad Rhinos. "Our huge clay creations needed to be light enough for one or two people to carry them onto a boat, across an ocean channel, onto the beach, up a cliff face, and across the island terrace to the auklet habitat. And they needed to be sturdy enough to last 50 years or more once installed. We all learned very quickly that simpler is better and less is more. It was difficult to let go of our early, more extravagant, more 'creative' ideas and face the realities of the task, but the birds don't care what the modules look like! They just need something that will protect them and feel like home."

The work was demanding. "I think I can safely say we were all taken a bit by surprise," says Vladimir Vlad (Architecture 2010), also of team Rad Rhinos. "All hands were required on deck to mix and pour 300 pounds of plaster -- per group! By the end, our clothes were evidence that we’d all become junior masters at the art of mold making."

In addition to the many technical considerations was the very real and daunting knowledge that they were making a long-term intervention in a natural landscape and ecosystem. Says Murphy, "There is so much we don’t know about the roles we play and the consequences we bring to the natural world. This class definitely brought me much closer to understanding that connection."

"The rhinoceros auklet could very well go extinct on this island without human help," comments Michael Verlinden (Glass 2011). "But of course humans are also the reason why so many species are struggling today. The magnitude of this restoration project is simultaneously scary and exciting. It's great motivation to know that this has the possibility of inspiring others to start similar projects to save more threatened species out there."

The students installed their modules across the nesting area in late March. Three weeks later, they came back to see what had transpired. Ecologist Ryan Carle of Oikonos reported: "I approached the Love Shack module and peeked into the entrance. There were little tracks in the tunnel. I cracked open the lid and was confronted with a little rhino face peering at me. Then I saw the egg it was incubating -- the first rhino egg in the new modules!"

Faculty leader Lynch is enthusiastic: "In this course, the students were relatively restricted in terms of the design requirements and the overarching goals, as opposed to other studio-based art classes that invite them to express themselves openly and follow a personal vision. But this course really brought them together, and helped them grow and bond, in ways that working in a classroom doesn't: the direct engagement with the client, the experience-driven nature of the undertaking. There's a realness to the project. I think I'm a better teacher in this kind of setting. It's a profound experience to work with students in this environment.

"I see these ENGAGE courses as an important direction in arts education. To be an artist you have to be agile and flexible, willing to take on challenges and willing to change. For the students this is a fascinating and productive opportunity to apply what they learn in the classroom to real-life problem solving."

Excerpted from All Hands on Deck by Samathan Braman.