Non-Human Varsovians
Małgorzata Kuciewicz, Simone De Iacobis, Natalia Budnik, Aleksandra Kędziorek, Non-Human Varsovians, Autoportret, nr 1 (68) 2020

Małgorzata Kuciewicz and Simone De Iacobis (CENTRALA) and the landscape architect Natalia Budnik in conversation with Aleksandra Kędziorek

ALEKSANDRA KĘDZIOREK: The climate disaster caused by human activity and irresponsible management of planetary resources forces us to rethink our relations with nature. As the Centrala architecture and research studio, you have addressed this topic in different ways. Your exhibition Amplifying Nature. The Planetary Imagination of Architecture in the Anthropocene at the Polish Pavilion at the 16th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice (curator: Anna Ptak) explored architecture in the context of physical phenomena, such as gravity, changing seasons and times of day, among other perspectives. Your subsequent projects concerned water, for example swamps and wetlands, which you wrote about in the recent issue of Autoportret [1]. The speculative project [2] which you are currently developing alongside the landscape architect Natalia Budnik is devoted to a different kind of actors in the world of nature: animals, their place in the city and the phenomenon defined in the international debate as multi-species urbanism.

MAŁGORZATA KUCIEWICZ: Let’s begin with the origins of this project, because – similarly to our previous activities – it does not result from theoretical considerations, but from reading the biography of a place and discerning new potential therein. A year ago, in March, we visited the Warsaw Zoo for the first time in decades. We suddenly realised that there was a blank spot on the map of Warsaw – that there was a district in the city whose size was comparable to that of the Old Town and the New Town taken together, a place we hadn’t noticed, which abounded in relics and interesting histories, while representing a completely obsolete construct. This inspired us to reflect on the extent to which we may view it as a resource. Reading the biography of the Warsaw Zoo revealed its local specificity, but at the same time we believe that our findings and proposals – which we still continue to develop – are universal for metropolitan zoos, that is those that are located in city centres and have become surrounded by urban tissue. Owing to their central location, they may be treated as biological centres, or rather main hubs of the natural system of a given city.

NATALIA BUDNIK: Interestingly, this potential is overlooked by municipal studies. In Atlas ekofizjograficzny Warszawy [Ecophysiographic Atlas of Warsaw], commissioned by the Office of Architecture and Urban Planning of the Capital City of Warsaw in 2018, the Zoo is not marked on the map of the city’s animal refuges. It is treated as part of the urban green infrastructure on a par with parks and cemeteries, but is not distinguished as an animal habitat. We have discussed this with the people who develop this study and the topic attracted their interest. They said that the Zoo had thus far been treated as an artificial creation and therefore not taken into account at all.

AK: But it appears in schemas from the interwar period.

MK: There is a diagram of Warsaw from 1929, the second year of the Zoo’s activity – a schema of residential areas and greenery. The Zoo is marked there as a pocket of the Vistula riverbed. We have known this study for a long time, often looking at it without noticing at all what sits in its centre. The most important aspect of speculative projects is this very shift, this moment when you suddenly start to see something that should be obvious, but has not been noticed before by anybody. That was the case with the Zoo. We didn’t see it. We became used to the fact that there are few animals in the city, and even fewer free-living animals, and we do not actually think about our relations with animals on an everyday basis.

SIMONE DE IACOBIS: We should remember that for a long time our relation with animals in the city was based on co-existence. Before the modern period, we were used to living in close proximity to animals, right beside each other. We offered each other warmth, we worked and rested together. Human survival depended on animals. Cattle would still traverse European cities as late as one hundred years ago, which can no longer be experienced in urban space. A major impulse that prompted our separation from animals came with modernity. It introduced the concept of city sanitation, it channelled water into underground sewage systems, eradicated transportation by horse, removed slaughterhouses from the city. Nowadays, animals are not publicly led for slaughter, it happens invisibly, slaughterhouses are hidden from view. If animals appear in the city, they do so as pets or to serve entertainment; horse racing, circuses, zoological gardens. The former – domesticated animals – are forced to live our own lives, but in the most restraining way: they live in our homes and we decide when they eat, defecate, reproduce, play, etc. We began separating from animals the moment we started to desire domination. This is perfectly described in the book Zoo Studies: A New Humanities [3], which recounts the way we achieved domination over land and other species. Zoological gardens represent this domination. We observe animals there from the position of an owner, we demonstrate our power. This is why we no longer see that we actually belong with animals to a single ecosystem. With our project, we want to encourage a new reflection on the structure of our cities in order to begin seeing ourselves again as one of the creatures that inhabit the city, and not one that positions itself above the others.

AK: If so, do you intend to restore the relations from the pre-modern era or to invent them anew?

SDI: Invent them anew. To look at other species with empathy and discover new relations that may connect us. To create an opportunity for an encounter that will sometimes also infringe on our comfort zone.
In our project, we call the current relation between humans and animals a Postmodernist justification. This means that nowadays we realise that something is wrong with our relation with animals, but we still don’t know how to cope with it. We justify the existence of zoos with the need for protection. We transform from owners to carers. We explain our activities with the fact that the zoo has become a refuge for the last few representatives of species threatened with extinction (or those that have actually died out, such as the milu, a species of deer that exists only in preservation breeding), but this is still a certain form of domination. 

MK: It is worth quoting here the former director of the Warsaw Zoo, Jan Landowski. In his introduction to the book from 1959, he asks what a zoological garden of a large city really is: “Does it protect numerous animal species from complete extinction? Or is it just a prison for animals, a place of their agony in front of the eyes of the people who distract their boredom with the view of their suffering?” [4]. We are convinced that the next generation will think about the zoo in the same way as we think about the human zoo. And the last human zoo closed down with the World’s Fair in Brussels, precisely in 1958.

AK: So the Warsaw Zoo should also close down?

SDI: The space occupied by zoological gardens in cities across the world hides immense possibilities. Such green areas stand a chance of becoming a place where we define our relation with animals anew. As architects, we see potential there. So the point is not to destroy zoological gardens, but to transform them into something new, something different. And the programme of protecting endangered species should be transferred outside the city, to acclimatisation-breeding reserves that will be inaccessible to viewers. To avoid the situation in which the protection of certain species (animals) becomes entertainment for others (people).

AK: So let’s begin with the programme questions. What is the Animals District, as you call it, created on the site of the Zoo, supposed to be? How do you shape its programme and how do you prepare for its establishment?

MK: When we started looking closely at the Zoo, it turned out that it was heavily codified as a spatial construct. There are quite a lot of spatial solutions that impose on us specific relations with animals. The history of animal enclosures and refuges shows how these relations were changing. Zoos transformed from initial cramped cages into nature-like enclosures with a scenography imitating the natural habitat of a given species. Instead of being separated with metal bars, the audiences were given an ersatz of direct contact – people were separated from animals using moats and various kinds of horizontal barriers. Nowadays, the number of barriers can be reduced owing to the pharmacological taming of animals – American zoos use massive amounts of Prozac for this purpose [5]. Despite these changes, people continue to dominate, standing in a circle around an animal – in one of the articles we found a drawing that likens this situation to primitive people with spears encircling a mammoth.
In the recent years, the zoo has witnessed an increasing medicalisation. Programmes for the protection of genetic resources are operated, and zoological gardens are beginning to resemble laboratory spaces. There’s quite a lot of glass. Vivaria are created, which allow for peeping at animals in their habitats, for example when they swim underwater or are active at night.
In turn, a crucial aspect of our project was to draw conclusions concerning the specificity of the Warsaw Zoo. It was not a postcolonial zoological garden. It was founded also as the capital city garden of domestic fauna, for the sake of the restitution of the European bison in the Białowieża Forest, seals on the Hel Peninsula, lynxes in the Kampinos Forest, marmots in the Tatra Mountains, the black stork, European pond turtles in the wetlands of Mazovia. At the very beginning, domestic species were as important as exotic ones. This is something we’d like to return to: doing away with exhibiting exotic animals and supporting local species instead, so that they can co-create local nature. Director Jan Żabiński thought similarly in 1929, when he planned: “An opportunity will be created to arrange a pond for beavers and to attempt to establish a mud-land, in which, perhaps, the elk – the second disappearing king of muds and marshes in the primeval forest aside from the bison – would agree to survive” [6]. Żabiński was planning to establish a place of such natural attraction for animals that they would be willing to inhabit it. He was an incredible figure, very inspirational for us, a man of great knowledge. He actually offers us solutions for the future on a plate. 

The programme of the Animal District is still in the making. But we can already see what such a district should contain – a breeding ground for endangered species (for example, there is a severe lack of amphibians in Warsaw), among other facilities, followed by an animal support programme: animal hospital, animal kitchen. Running a municipal kitchen for free-living, wild animals is an interesting topic. Feeding programmes allow for saturating the city with animals, but “bait stations” can also be used to direct them into specific areas, thus avoiding unnecessary culls. The Animal District could become a place of peaceful hibernation, an underground and underwater environment for many species. Today, animals that hibernate still need to stay alert. We’re also thinking about an island for nocturnal animals, which will be completely devoid of artificial light. The Centre for Interspecies Communication and ethological stations will also be very important. One of the excuses for defending zoos as they are now is that modern-day children have not enough contact with nature. They need to go to the zoo not to suffer from nature deficit disorder. We argue that if the city itself was saturated with animals, we would not need any additional animal exhibitions. The Centre for Interspecies Communication will help us understand each other better. It will be a place of unexpected encounters and of disturbing the human perspective. Nature service, instead of military service, could also be introduced. What’s more, we’re thinking about the project in relation to a whole network of zoological gardens. An important part of the programme will involve preparation for assisted species migrations. It is a European programme concerning the migration of animals due to the climate disaster.


AK: However, the phrase “animal district” suggests that animals would still be gathered in one space. How will it then differ from the existing Zoo?

SDI: So let’s talk about morphology. From the point of view of an architect and an urban planner, it is very interesting how the transformation of the Zoo into the Animal District will influence the morphology of the city. Recall what ecological corridors by highways look like – they allow animals to safely cross from one side to the other. This is something we should introduce in cities. Here, a natural wildlife corridor is the Vistula, in which animals can move freely, but such infrastructure is lacking in the other parts of the city. We imagine the Animal District as a hub from which animals will migrate to neighbouring districts, to Praga and across the Vistula to the western part of the city. The animal infrastructure in the city should be richer than it is now. It is not only about beehives on the roofs of skyscrapers or nest boxes for the common swift on the walls of buildings. Buildings themselves should become more complex – they should not only serve people, but also become spaces for various species to co-exist, from insects, to birds, to larger mammals. If we had free-living deer, then probably those living in the Animal District would visit housing estates in Praga and nibble plants from balconies on the ground floor. And it would be absolutely necessary to introduce more water in the city, which would significantly change its morphology.

MK: We’re known for believing that the urban environment should be hydrated, or even partly transformed into a wetland. It will then become a kind of sponge allowing for water retention. In such case, animals could also move along such additional water channels. We would thus return to the origins of the Warsaw Zoo, which was established on a wetland. As for animal infrastructure, it is not only about refuges, but also about bird tables, feeding racks, salt licks, drinking troughs, mangers. They represent small-scale architecture that should exist on a par with swings, sandboxes and bicycle racks. It is important to saturate the entire city with such “pro-animal” solutions, and not only its selected areas – for example to create places for migratory birds.

SDI: But what matters is also the economic change that follows. And this is a difficult topic. In capitalism, there is always a consumer, a commodity, a service, a buyer, etc. Animals do not follow this logic. I’ve recently read in The Guardian a fantastic article that commented on David Attenborough’s documentary series Our Planet (produced by Netflix, 2019). It features a heartbreaking scene in which walruses climb up a cliff in search of new places to live because of the melting icecap, and they fall off that cliff. The author of the article suggests that all of this is happening because in our minds we have always separated the costs of our life from nature and animals, never linking these two spheres at all. Animals are not consumers, they don’t pay taxes, they don’t exist in the current economic regime – unless they become a commodity. A question arises: how to change our way of thinking and introduce a more far-sighted perspective that takes into account the existence of other species of fauna, flora and fungi in urban space. Even when it follows the logic of capitalism, ecology also acquires an economic significance when seen from a broader perspective, because we later pay an exorbitant price for not having embraced it. For example, interesting analyses exist that demonstrate the untold economic value generated by forests in the United States because they produce oxygen, which we all need to live. Therefore, when we design for animals, it does not mean we do it without a prospect of profit – it’s just that this profit is understood in a different way.
Returning to the Warsaw Zoo, it is currently funded with a municipal subsidy and income from ticket sales. But we may also look at it in the context of circular economy as an integral part of the city’s metabolism.

NB: The major role played by the zoo in urban metabolism can already be seen today. Christmas trees are given to the inhabitants of the zoo after Christmas and animals use them to play. They consume the so-called green forage generated by the maintenance of urban greenery, for example mowing lawns, meadows, maintenance of parks. Windthrows, that is the trunks of trees uprooted by gales, are also deposited in enclosures. In autumn, the zoo organises an acorn collection action for the animals under its charge – every year children bring even as many as several tons of them.

The future Animal District will acquire an even greater importance on the scale of the city as an ecosystem. Its location in a pocket of the Vistula offers the possibility to connect it with habitats of riverside animals and introduce closed-circuit water circulation. Instead of using mechanical and chemical agents to keep water clean, water systems could become connected and purified by means of hydrobotanical filters made of aquatic plants with the macrofauna that inhabits them: fish, amphibians, etc. We also discern major potential in setting up pilot projects of ecological residential housing in the immediate vicinity of the “post-zoo” area, and later in the entire city. The “post-zoo” area may become a sphere of interpenetrating ecosystems, which will enrich each other; an ecotone of sorts, that is a transition zone between ecosystems – in this case between riverside and urban habitats, on various scales.

AK: However, the vision of a tight nexus between the Animal District and the city organism may raise considerable concerns among the inhabitants of Warsaw. Urban design in a Modernist spirit has accustomed us to a certain comfort of life, whereas this vision requires us to constantly confront animals. In the existing Zoo there are domestic species, with which it is probably easier to imagine a possibility of co-existence (although deer nibbling plants from balconies are not what most people dream of), but there are also extremely dangerous exotic predators.

MK: As for the animals in the Zoo, this division between domestic and exotic ones has already become somewhat out of date – many generations of animals have already been raised in the Warsaw Zoo that we would call exotic, but which can no longer be re-introduced in their natural habitats. For example, the Warsaw giraffe is already a Central European animal, it copes with winter, it licks icicles. If it was to return to its natural habitat, it would have to undergo the same acclimatisation process as the exotic animals that arrive here. The Warsaw Zoo operated the so-called cold breeding procedure developed by Żabiński. Animals were let outside whenever the sun was shining, regardless of the temperature. Their enclosures are built in such a wat that they simultaneously function as shelter roofs. Something that seemed highly innovative in BIG’s design for the Givskud Zoo from 2014 had already been implemented in Warsaw in the 1930s. It allowed animals to go up above the level of riverside mist and not experience so harshly the effects of ground freezing – they could live on the roofs of their own homes. Coming back to the fears… Most of the predators that inhabit the Warsaw Zoo must spend their retirement there, it’s impossible to relocate them to a different climate. We’ve calculated that they are going to live there until around 2055. It’s not a long time. During this period, the zoo may be slowly transformed into the Animal District.

SDI: As for the comfort of life – the one we’ve achieved in our cities is artificial. This claim is also made by Monnik, our futurologist friends from Amsterdam: by building cities we have created an artificial world for ourselves, which has replaced the natural one. We should reconnect with it, even just to become more sensitive to the climate crisis. What do we do today to get closer to nature? We get in our cars, go to the countryside for a week or two, and when we already feel better, we come back home, where this artificial world that we’ve created once again gets us with all its force. Why could cities themselves not become more saturated with nature? This is why we opt for cities full of animals, more humid, murkier. We opt for darker cities because our current cities are polluted with light – light at night increases our sense of security, it makes us feel more confident, but it also makes animals lose track of the times of the day and they live as if day lasted twenty-four hours. Meanwhile, modern-day technology allows for reconciliating these needs, finding a better solution that will not be destructive to animals. We believe the city should be “rewilded” to a certain extent so that we can tune better into nature. Our bodies function according to natural cycles, our circadian clock, although we’ve already completely forgotten about it. Our project devoted to the Zoo forms part of this reflection – about darker, more humid cities with more animals in them – which, all in all, is meant to lead to the creation of a less artificial living environment.

NB: This doesn’t mean that we should completely give the city away to animals. What matters is our co-existence. Many urban ecologists are currently studying the ways in which the city influences animals that deliberately decide to live in it. We may sometimes feel uncomfortable with them, but they can also partly adapt to the conditions we dictate. For example, there have been cases of super-intelligent ravens that use passing cars to crack nuts [7]. In Poland, this topic is investigated by Prof. Marta Szulkin from the Wild Urban Evolution and Ecology Lab at the University of Warsaw. She observes how non-human city dwellers adapt to urban conditions. A large part of birds and small mammals choose to migrate to the city attracted by the availability of food and a milder climate. Our task is to adapt urban space as much as we can so that it doesn’t pose threat to them. So we can meet halfway. Research offers the basis to understand the urban ecosystem and determine which facilities may be implemented in its space. We hope that we will manage to include experts in our debate about the Animal District and the ways to fill the city with animals, adjust it to the requirements of the future.

AK: Such speculative project also presents new challenges to you as architects. How does one design for humans and non-humans? How is the architect’s role changing in the Anthropocene?

NB: Interdisciplinarity is important – combining knowledge from various fields and working with specialists. Although today’s designs represent the opinions of people from the industry, it seems that what matters more than showing the results of individual studies is to engage representatives of various professions in a direct dialogue and developing new solutions together. We’ve already seen such examples. In 2014, research on biodiversity in Skaryszewski Park was conducted upon the initiative of Prof. Maciej Luniak. Many experts from different fields joined the project: biologists, zoologists, but also sociologists and landscape architects. Together, they drew up a report with design recommendations, which opposed a traditional renewal of the park by recreating the historical composition from Franciszek Szanior’s design. The report suggested how to properly preserve the park’s natural value without reducing its utilitarian functions. Maciej Luniak collaborated with Halina Skibniewska already in the 1980s on establishing the principles of an ecological residential estate. The innovative design of the Białołęka Dworska district was developed by an interdisciplinary team. It was prominently published and broadly commented on internationally. Unfortunately, it never materialised.

SDI: As Centrala, we frequently deal with studying Modernist principles. The Zoo is a Modernist design – with sculptural rocky enclosures by the sculptor Władysław Gruberski, domes designed by Stanisław Hempel, a constructor from the Praesens group, signboards by Henryk Stażewski. But it is true that our professional practice is changing along with the increasing awareness of challenges posed by the Anthropocene. We now attach special importance to determining the significance of the natural components of Modernist designs, such as hydrobiology.

MK: Another example: the public debate about Warsaw after the war has so far concentrated on rebuilding understood as the reconstruction of buildings, new development, creating urban complexes. We now ask about the reconstruction of greenery: how was greenery in the city recreated, or rather created anew? The manner of restoring the natural system on the scale of the city is an inspiring example from the past.
The most important change in designing for humans and non-humans is the need to recalibrate ourselves from a more visual understanding of space to a multisensual one. Animals have a different perception of the world and a different motricity. Smells are important for them, which serve their orientation in space. They’re also not as tied to the ground. Textures are more important than architectural forms because animals perceive details on a different scale. This may also influence architecture, enrich it, lend it a new visual expression. What matters is to start thinking about the city as an immense ecosystem inhabited by fauna, flora and fungi, just like all other places. By recalibrating our attention to non-human city inhabitants we learn many new things, change our mental habits, our understanding of the community for which we design. This is what makes this project so fascinating.

[1] M. Kuciewicz, S. De Iacobis, “Błotna ariergarda”, Autoportret, no. 3 (2019), pp. 60–65.
[2] Speculative design, also called critical design or design fiction, seeks possible answers to the challenges of the contemporary era using design methods. Whereas conventional design consists in searching for solutions to specific problems at a specific time and on a small scale, speculative design adopts a broader perspective and, starting from the question “what would happen if”, proposes possible scenarios for the future. Designs created in this way are not meant to be implemented, but rather to create a space for debate. They are also supposed to encourage viewers to activate their imagination, suspend their fixed beliefs about the surrounding reality and redefine together our way of being in the world. See: A. Dune, Fiona Raby, Speculative Everything. Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013).
[3] Zoo Studies: A New Humanities, ed. T. McDonald, D. Vandersommers (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019).
[4] J. Landowski’s introduction to the book 30 lat warszawskiego ogrodu zoologicznego 1928–1958, ed. Z. Woliński (Warsaw: Państwowe Wydawnictwo Rolnicze i Leśne, 1959).
[5] See: S. Taylor, Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation (New York: New Press, 2017).
[6] J. Żabiński, “Miejski Ogród Zoologiczny”, Kronika Warszawy, no. 10 (1929).
[7] M. Schilthuizen, Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution (New York: Picador, 2018).