How place and cultural exchange impacts perspective and shapes creative journeys
Creativity is a vehicle fueled by imagination and driven by artists that offer new solutions or perspectives on the way that things have been done. Often a tantalizing enigma, creativity is its most potent when tertiary disciplines are combined to elevate the thought processes and question the status quo. Mitchell Scherer uses his background in animal science to approach landscape architecture through the lens of the other, in this case — animals and wildlife.
In 1712, Joseph Addison wrote a series of essays titled “On the Pleasures of the Imagination” which was the first to address the idea of making landscape. It wasn’t for another 150 years that the terminology “landscape architecture” was introduced into our lexicon. Living in a space between the environment and architecture, landscape architecture is in search of the relationship between built form and natural form.
Before pursuing a career in landscape architecture, Mitchell lived past lives as an NCAA All-American swimmer, an animal caretaker at the Centre for Wildlife Care in Central Pennsylvania, and as an animal behavior specialist at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium working with Jack Hanna.
In 2017, Mitchell received his Masters in Landscape Architecture from the Knowlton School of Architecture at the Ohio State University. After which he went on to work at Michael Van Valkenburgh and Associates on such projects as The Barack Obama Presidential Center in Chicago. Following his time at Michael Van Valkenburgh and Associates, Mitchell worked at Future Green Studio in Brooklyn.
Artistic Fuel: What made you pursue a career in landscape architecture?
Mitchell Scherer: I began studying animal sciences at Penn State in 2008, when I became interested in the processes of modern agriculture, wildlife management and meat production. Major leaders in the field of Animal Science at the time became influential and prominent figures to my own advocacy for humane animal processes. Temple Grandin was an influential force in demanding change for negotiating systems of feedlot operations with the welfare practices exposing a variety of cultural and societal patterns that require reframing over time.
My interest in animal care and behavior led me to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium where I worked with a wide variety of animals including penguins, leopards, cheetahs, and a binturong (miss you, Sherman). All of these animals became agents to their own environmental processes requiring enough space and material to organize and leverage their roles within the larger narrative of conservation. This experience offered a new approach to animal welfare practices and proved to be a proxy for future design fieldwork aimed at mitigating changing policies in an evolving process of negotiating the crossovers of climate with culture.
I spent a lot of time crawling over, under, between and through the material worlds of staged geographies to better understand these “characters” in search of their role within the larger geographic context of conservation and performance—passing through a guillotine door to a visual stage that pivoted between viewer, keeper and inhabitant. I saw the collective importance of design building for each space that would accommodate individual behaviors, mental structures and species’ specific identities. Designs were needed, especially to recognize and come to terms with the ever changing importance of contextualizing the inhabitants within material traces of the constructed space and organizing structures to serve a larger narrative of environmental change.
Traveling through Europe, I spent the majority of my time birding. l began to notice the ways in which human activity overlapped with non-humans, especially in dense urban areas like Rome. The countless Herring gulls swarming the city proved to be a direct result from the closing of one of the largest municipal waste dumps just a few miles from the city. The Malagrotta dumping site served as the capital’s largest garbage refuse facility for over 30 years, receiving waste from several municipalities in the Lazio province of Italy. When the European Court of Justice ruled that Malagarotta landfill was in violation of the EU Landfill and Waste Management Legislation, the site was quickly shut down in 2012 causing these emergent species to seek other food opportunities in the climate of Rome.
A|F: In “Before the Stopover,” you address the vulnerable position of birds during long distance migration because of the loss and destruction of stopover habitats. What was the evolution of this project, and how did your time living in other environments like Rome, change your perspective on “Before the Stopover”?
Scherer: I had the opportunity to explore the city of Rome in a way that allowed me to follow it’s natural geography. By searching for processes that provided materials and spaces that allowed for emergent ecologies to occur, I noticed the city had become a platform for the incidental staging of ecological processes seen in the collective identity of artifacts and negotiations between humans, buildings, plants, wildlife. Rooftop architecture, for example, began to reveal enough material and space to create man-made islands. The roofs, for better or for worse, gained habitat legitimacy. I was able to track the birds movements and provide a visual framework that identified emerging patterns of ecology on rooftops but the city also revealed itself and its capacity to change and be changed.
For much of the last half-century of western development, landscapes have been seen and used as an asset for rapid development and expanding growth of horizontal cities—mostly for commercial development and agriculture. Dating back to the U.S. Land Ordinance in 1785, ‘wild’ landscapes were perceived by human settlers as “unowned” or “untamed” landscapes, transforming the wild or “unused” Native American territories into real estate opportunities. This quickly changed the functions of these landscapes from an ecologic to an economic use. The problem with today’s human-built environment isn’t that cities exist. Rather, it is the extent to which the humans influence existing habitats’ ecologies.
In cities today, the built environment continues to develop with a one single species’ function—for the human, by the human. Non-human species are forced to find a way to ‘hack’ our cities in order to generate enough space to survive in them. Human settlement patterns and systematic consumption of land has led to habitat disturbance for many species of wildlife, but the highest mortality rates in wildlife are seen in migratory birds, depending on cities as stopover habitats in order to survive their annual migrations.
Most migratory birds breed in the northern hemisphere in early summer, hatch their young and then head south to escape the winter. Few birds make it through their entire migration without stopping between their starting point and their destination. Instead, migration is divided into phases of flight and stopover. Most birds rely on stopover sites to rest, feed, and fortify themselves for the next stage of their journey.
Since birds follow streams, rivers and topography like leading lines to guide their movements to prominent features within the landscape (large bodies of water, lakes). These areas are attractive to birds because of the reflections of light on the surface of the water signalling high energy, water tolerant, fruit bearing plants and vegetation below. Unfortunately, light polluted cities are mistaken for reflections on bodies of water by migrant birds flying above these disorienting areas. In cities like New York, the highest concentrations of stopover migratory birds are seeking refuge where they see light reflections but are met with harsh conditions that provide the least amount of habitat and nesting options. Unfortunately, most won’t make it out alive.
A|F: When you talk about designing environments or habitats from the animal perspective, what does that mean?
Scherer: The distinctions between the human and non- human environments have everything to do with the different perceptions of that space. To establish an environment where humans and non humans are able to occupy the same spaces requires an understanding of the perceptions of the multiple inhabitants within it. The city environment, for example, is essentially an object perceived by millions of people of widely diverse classes and character but it is also the product of many builders who are constantly modifying the structures for reasons of their own. Perceiving the environment from a non-human provides designers with an opportunity to accommodate and commingle animal habitat with a humanist built environment to maintain biodiverse ecologies rather than incidental side-effects of construction. The concepts of legibility, identity, structure, meaning, and emotional response are equally important to the non-human inhabitants to be considered when constructing new spatial conditions.
A|F: What art and architects do you look to when thinking about developing projects?
Scherer: Temple Grandin, Agnes Denes and Mark Dion are major influences. I look to characters in search of finding their role of art or research within a larger narrative of conservation or social change. The politics of representation as it involves the museum has always been an interest to me as well.
AF: There’s a certain psychology of space when it comes to humans and wildlife interacting. How can we develop habitats that honor co-species living environments with wildlife?
Scherer: The human’s perception of the non-human is an interesting dynamic for possible management practice. For example, the bird in the backyard, separated from the human by a physical boundary, is considered a source of entertainment. But if that same bird were to enter your house, all control is lost. Suddenly the bird is perceived as an intruder. Once that bird is caged, it becomes a beloved pet. Human interactions with animals are influenced by their intrinsically tied factors of control and perception of that animal.
I believe the greatest tension between human and non-human comes in the ‘domestic’ territory—the home. With urban environments becoming increasingly confronted by species that seek these areas as new habitats, human and non-human relationships are becoming more complex and important to identify.
Humans aren’t going to stop urbanizing the planet, but can we begin to understand the perceptions of multiple inhabitants within shared spaces and begin to question our role as characters that cannot change. We should challenge the notion that non-human worlds are somehow separate from our own.
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Kaeley is a contemporary artist and cultural organizer who loves good espresso and a cold Coke Zero.