The Usonian Interviews, No. 3: Architectural designer Angeline C. Jacques on designing for animals and climate change

Her competition-winning design for the International Owl Center mediates encounters with nature

Architectural rendering for “Adjacent Encounters,” Angeline C. Jacques’ competition-winning design for the International Owl Center in Houston, Minnesota. (Courtesy Angeline C. Jacques)

In each installment of “The Usonian Interviews,” The Usonian spotlights a new storyteller or designer from a different corner of the globe. This week, The Usonian spoke with architectural designer Angeline C. Jacques about her competition-winning design for the International Owl Center in Houston, Minnesota.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

THE USONIAN: You’re an architectural designer—and a birder. How did these two interests align for your competition-winning design for the International Owl Center in Houston, Minnesota? What drew you to this design contest and project?

ANGELINE C. JACQUES: Birdwatching is a relatively recent hobby [for me], and it was definitely fueled by the pandemic. But I’ve always been fascinated by birds. One of my coworkers saw the call for competition proposals and forwarded it to me and correctly assumed it was something in which I would be interested.

When an institution wants to get a new headquarters or a new building, they often send out a call for ideas. Not necessarily to hire the person with that idea, but to help them imagine what they might want, and help them imagine things that maybe they hadn’t considered. The International Owl Center is a non-profit in Houston, Minnesota. They purchased new land and they’re hoping to build a new headquarters. Growing up, visiting nature centers and animal exhibitions was my favorite thing to do. Getting to imagine a new place for something like that, even if just in concept, was pretty exciting.

TU: Why don’t you walk us through your design? I was intrigued by the Corten steel fins which sort of act as a screen on the front façade of the building, and how your design for the display aviaries offers different types of “encounters” with the owls—including peek-through windows, as well as platforms at different heights, etc.

ACJ: Essentially, there were three big ideas I was trying to bridge with the design, and you’ve picked up on two of them. The other one is that the Owl Center had a long list of programs or uses that they require for their spaces. Their new building needs to welcome visitors, care for owls with a big behind-the-scenes operation, and house aviaries that are pleasant to visit. The first part of the design was just figuring out how to fit all those needs together, which was the big floor plan that I presented in the project. That part felt like putting puzzle pieces together.

[The Owl Center] also wanted to be recognizable. I thought those perforated metal fins on the front of the building would be a graphic and identifiable way to mark the entrance to the facility. But it would also be another great example of bird-safe glass techniques. For a while now, there has been a big conversation in the world of architectural design in regards to making glass safe so that birds don’t fly into it and harm themselves, which happens in very tragic numbers across the country every year. You would never want to have a center dedicated to birds where the entrance is a big glass lobby. One of the methods [for bird-safe glass] consists of perforated metal fins that let in light.

Angeline C. Jacques’ design for display aviaries at the International Owl Center, featuring peak-through holes to simulate the surprise of discovery while birdwatching in the wild. (Courtesy Angeline C. Jacques)

I was also interested in how to design an aviary that is more than just a visitor and a glass wall. You see that a lot in zoos or education centers, and it’s so much more exciting when you feel like you’re entering an animal space, almost safari style. The design has all these little promenades where you walk into a viewing space to see the owl [from a particular vantage]. Because the aviaries are next to each other, I also wanted to have these “peek-a-boo” holes—narrow holes in the wall where you could peer into the next exhibit and see another owl, similar to the experience of when you’re out birdwatching and you just catch a glimpse of a bird through the trees. That moment of discovery is always exciting.

TU: Though it was a design contest, and not necessarily the design the International Owl Center will adopt when they build a new facility, what elements of your design do you hope will be retained in the eventual finished product? And were there design elements in some of the other contest entrants that you found compelling?

ACJ: Re-thinking the aviaries is the best way to have a really new and exciting space. The International Owl Center seemed to respond positively to that concept. I’m hoping that’s something that they incorporate.

Looking at some of the other entries, I liked the sustainable design approaches that some of the other entries took. There were entries that were thinking about geothermal energy, solar heating, and solar shading. [Sustainable energy] was something I didn’t get to address as much as I wanted. If a building is so rooted in the environment, it should have the least negative impact on the environment as possible.

TU: Over the past few years, you’ve worked on research and design projects that involved thinking about how animals interact with architecture and new relationships between urbanism and the natural world, whether it’s analyzing the migration of the coyote to Manhattan, the role of the mosquito in man-made environments, or in your MIT M.Arch thesis, in which you sketch an outline for “Mission 2066,” a national park for the Anthropocene—where you’ve suggested that the glaciers of Glacier National Park, Montana, might be artificially maintained in spite of climate change. How should architectural designers and urbanists be thinking of the interaction between human habitation and the natural world in relation to climate changes?

ACJ: When I started grad school, I didn’t really think of my status as an animal lover being entwined with learning how to be a designer. It was mostly a hobby. That really changed when I started working with Rania Ghosn, my thesis advisor. Her research revolves around the idea that architecture should not be thought of as in a vacuum, that it is inherently a part of a million different systems of materials, supply, climate, and social justice.

In school, architecture can often feel a little isolated, but it’s one of the most interdisciplinary fields—it touches everything and is touched by everything. In [Ghosn’s] classes, I felt empowered to find connections between the things that I think about in everyday life. That resulted in my interest in the phenomenon of coyotes walking down the street [in New York City], thinking about how nature is adapting to the most urban city in the world, and how they use artificial spaces to build their own populations.

This research grew into my thesis, which really came from an interest in the history of national parks, which is such a complex and weighty history when you’re thinking about designing in wilderness. There’s really no such thing as untouched wilderness anymore, because the climate is human-influenced, and has been for an incredibly long time. And so if we accept that we’ve had the ability to touch everything, the question becomes, what’s the best way to build?

TU: Are there particular architects or architectural writers whose work you admire or inspire your work?

ACJ: Someone who has influenced the way I think about these topics is Jennifer Wolch, an urban ecology theorist. She has this theory about “disturbed regimes.” Cities have orders of things we expect to see on the streets and in our lives. When an animal interrupts that, it feels scary, uncanny, and sometimes just amusing to see those different regimes [collide]. Seeing a coyote on the streets of Manhattan can be a frightening experience, but videos of seagulls walking into cafés and stealing bags of chips are kind of funny. You could zoom out and argue that we’re all part of this ecosystem. There’s no solid wall between the city and nature. Those things are going to bleed together. But it always surprises us when we see it.

TU: Are you reading anything right now that you’d like to recommend? I heard that you recently finished Robert Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, which is a tremendous accomplishment.

ACJ: I did just finish The Power Broker, and I can’t stop thinking about it. Granted, [New York City planning figure] Robert Moses wasn’t an architect. But seeing the complex web of politics, planning, and public works that went into the New York that we have today is astounding. That’s a really good one. Bit of a heavy lift. Literally, it’s like three pounds.

Another book I read recently that is architecture-related is Brave New Home by Diana Lind. It’s a great book for people that want a cohesive overview of how we arrived at the American housing dream, with some great narratives on where housing could go next, such as co-op housing or communal living in the twenty-first century. It’s a much quicker read than the Caro, and it’s very well written.

TU: What advice do you have for young people who might want to pursue architecture as a career?

ACJ: A big challenge in architecture can be seeing yourself in the profession at all. It was historically a white male profession for gentlemen. The field has changed a lot over the years, but it’s hard to shed that baggage completely. Seeing myself as a designer was a big first step.

When I was a kid, my family thought I was going to work with animals, which I didn’t wind up doing, because I wanted to do something creative. But now I’m seeing ways in which you can design the place where people and animals [coexist], and make that an exciting and valuable contribution. For people who are interested in the places that shaped who they are, architecture is a good path.

Angeline C. Jacques is an architectural designer living and working in Philadelphia. Her interests in architecture and nature have led to a series of works on how animals, insects, and other non-human beings inhabit the environments we build. Her works have been published by Archinect, The London Metropolitan University, and Kerb Journal. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Architecture from Princeton University and a Master of Architecture from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is a two-time winner of the Alpha Rho Chi Medal. Angeline currently works for SITIO architecture + urbanism and spends her free time looking at buildings and birds.