Another World on the Merri 

Designing a library for the Merri Creek with RMIT Masters of Architecture Students, based on environmental philosophies of ecofeminism, inter-species kinship, and post-humanist studies. 
2022- ongoing 

The idea was to create a library on the Merri Creek that promotes ecological imagination, with the library’s architecture underpinned by ideas of interspecies kinship, posthumanism, queer and feminist ecology, and a respect to First Nations environmental philosophies. The hope being that the library would encourage imagining futures grounded in these theories, while also embodying this theory in the library’s formation and structure. Throughout the process we tried to design in ways that considered not just humans but all beings that came into contact with the library, to try and avoid anthropocentrism, to attempt to undo the western dualism between humans and nature, and work with, rather than against, the complexities of the space in which we were situated.

The decision to position the library on what is known as the Merri Creek (or its traditional Wurundjeri name the Merri Merri) is because for many the Merri acts as a symbol of “where nature is”, making it already a potent site of ecological imagination. The Merri is often positioned as a natural enclave within an unnatural city—but what are the boundaries of natural and unnatural? Where does the city begin and where does nature end? 

In English “nature” is defined as all that is not human nor of human creation, with “natural” meaning what is derived from nature and “not made or caused by humankind.” In line with these meanings, the Merri Creek is in no way a natural place. For thousands of years managed and cultivated by the Wurrundjeri clan, then used as a rubbish dump during colonial settlement, then regenerated as a green space by community groups, the creek has been cared for, changed, neglected, disturbed, uprooted, re-routed, and partially regenerated—all by humans.

There can also be no boundary between the idea of natural spaces and non-nature spaces, with the “unnatural” always creeping into the “natural” and vice versa. Pollution from the city does not stop at the boundaries of the creek, pigeons nest in building alcoves, spiders and rats often prefer human houses to their, so called, “natural” habitat, and some fish are now on human medications from living in water that has passed through our chemically bodies. We are constantly nibbling and being nibbled by beings smaller than ourselves, the plastic we leave in rivers and oceans is made micro plastic by krill then drunk by us and incorporated back into our bodies through a plasticy gestation and exchange. When prodded, the western idea of what is natural, and the boundaries between nature and non-nature, quickly crumble into nothingness; revealing the construct of humans as unnatural and nature as what is not human to be nothing more than a fantasy. 

This separation of what is nature and what is human has an important political impetus in that it allows for the exploitation of non-human nature through a denial of our interdependence with it. The environmental feminist and philosopher Val Plumwood describes this as a dualistic relationship where reciprocity between humans and nature is denied, and humans are epistemologically positioned as superior to the non-human word. This dualism, which separates humans from nature within a power binary, justifies environmental exploitation and an absence of care or responsibility. This western philosophy of nature is in stark contrast to First Nations environmental philosophies where there is no separation or hierarchy between humans and the non-human surroundings, a world view that seems far more grounded in reality.

Really the library could have been situated anywhere as there is no place, either directly touched or created by humans or not, that is not in some way natural, a part of the ecological web we live in, or implicated in ideas of environmental philosophy. However, places like the Merri draw to the surface the complexity and philosophical contradictions created in western thought, making it a rich place for imaginative speculation. The creek has been philosophically and physically co-constructed by humans, chemical pollutants, plastics, volcanic planes, shifting tectonics, and plant and animal life both native and introduced. This is a good place for thinking about and imagining, what Donna Haraway calls “staying with the trouble,” or the idea that we need to find ways of living alongside, and with, a complicated, impure, and unnatural world with care and consideration.

But what might a library for environmental imagination based on these ideas look like ?

We had planned a library architecture that would enact the theories it held on its shelves. Rather than a symbol of ecological thought, we wanted the library to embody the theories that underpinned its conception. So often architecture that deals with ecology simply represents, taking the form or the vision of nature symbolically, rather than engaging deeply with ecological theory in its formation. How could the form of the library be entirely dependent on what it does, and what it does be a reflection of the environmental philosophies it contains?

This meant decentering the human, taking the animals, insects, grasses, soil, air, and water that were to come in contact with the structure as key stakeholders, as clients, and as friends—or at least beings we would attempt to be friendly to. Initially this led us to try and create designs that somehow catered to the non-human: maybe a shelter that could also water a tree, a bridge people could meet on that traps rubbish in the creek, a structure with its foundation made out of seed pods that could break down and release native seeds, or a library that feeds mushrooms and fungi and eventually composts. However it quickly became clear that as visiting architects, rather than ecologists who had worked in this space a long time, we were deeply unprepared to make meaningful contributions in this area. Whatever design we suggested that did something to the surroundings seemed to have endless unwieldy repercussions. We were also limited by the bureaucracy of council and legality which meant that whatever structure we made would also need to be easily assembled and taken away. The grand ideas of bird boxes, bee hotels, planting, and watering all gave way to the realisation that seeds would get trampled if planted in the same place as the library, that we could not make an animal shelter that would then be taken away, and many scientists were already doing what we were trying to do but much better.

Where we came to in the end was that all we could give, as novices in this space, was care and attention. Of simply being there and being interested, of watching, and of learning. The intervention we made, maybe unsurprisingly, came back to an intervention into human thought rather than any action or doing associated with the surrounding environment of the project. Where we had been quick to act on the other we had ignored the need to continue working on our own beliefs and ignorances. It became clear that the best we could do at this point was to be there with a light touch. This is of course not to say that human intervention into the environment should not happen—the conclusion was not that humans as a whole should let non-human nature be, to the contrary all that we discussed suggested that a separation from humans and nature is the least natural thing—rather that meaningful intervention takes a relationship built out of careful and long term observation, and that we as a small group were at stage where this kind of intervention was not yet possible. We instead needed to learn and observe and reflect, and probably do this for quite a while–certainly longer than the 13 weeks assigned to the studio’s semester.

A crossover emerged in realising that libraries are often quiet places, conditions that align well with observation of an environment and its inhabitants that may otherwise be put off by noises. This became the new direction of the project: A library architecture that does not cause harm, that incorporates the philosophies we had been studying as a class, and a space for learning and observing that did not prioritise this learning at the expense of the beings we were learning about. We wanted to make a structure for learning both from theory as well as the land and creatures that surrounded it.

A theme throughout the project was humility and resisting the urge to build big. We are often told that architecture needs to be impressive and follow particular conventions; however western architecture has been largely a reflection of the western philosophies that have also caused mass ecological destruction. As Hélène Frichot asks,

“How can we stay with the trouble in architecture? How can we trouble architecture’s status quo and imagine other clean up acts for our discipline? Ones that are perhaps less glamorous, ones that engage a poetic pragmatics, ones in search of glimmers of joy amidst the islands of unholy mass.”

We knew that to attempt an ecological architecture we may not be able to live up to all the expectations of the discipline, with our results being, as Frichot suggests, less glamorous. Instead of drawing on grand eco buildings, our biggest inspirations came from community kitchens and DIY protest structures that sit light on the land and use recycled materials. This made sense for the context we were working in and best reflected the philosophies we were exploring. We had to get used to the idea of doing less but maybe considering more. The group decided on lightweight walls and canopies constructed from patchworked recycled plastics, made durable by fusing the plastics together with heat. This use of plastic meant no waste was created while referencing eco anarchist histories of bricolage and re-use. Instead of using “natural” materials that symbolically reference nature, the use of plastic nods to Haraways idea of “staying with” an impure environment where plastics are a reality, as well as Heather Davis’s queer ecological theory that ponders what it means to see plastic as a kind of illegitimate kin. Trees on the site are used as scaffolding, avoiding uprooting or piercing the land and allowing for easy assemblage, while bike tubes gleaned from the local bike shed attach the walls without damaging the tree trunks or interfering drastically with insect highways. The plastic walls of the library are positioned with gaps between them and the ground to make space for animal routes across the ground, for instance travelling dogs, possums, or snails. The library is designed to be easily assembled and then taken away, challenging the belief that proper architecture needs to be permanent. The temporary, soft, and moveable nature of the library prompts us to think about how we can build with flexibility and in ways that allow for friendlier relations with the ecology we are a part of.

Importantly we wanted there to be no boundary or distinction between the space of the library and the surrounding environment. Western and colonial architecture has traditionally reiterated the western philosophical dualism between humans and nature with buildings physically working to separate humans from non-human nature. These buildings go beyond shelter by working culturally to create a feeling of separation and superiority to the non-human world, keeping it at a psychological and physical distance. Although contemporary western architecture sometimes does attempt to bring non-nature into the building, it is usually contained and strictly controlled within the limits of human desire. We wanted the walls of the library to always open out into the surrounding area, emeshing the structure within the wider space and insisting on an engagement with the environment.

So while this library is essentially a patchwork plastic sheet with pockets strung up amidst the trees, made of recycled and found materials, and not at all glamorous looking, there is a deep thought behind it and a provocation in its refusal to be impressive. It is a first stage attempt to think through an architecture that does not impose itself without consideration for its non-human kin, and what it means to design with ecological care. So please take this as a gesture, or a prompt, for thinking and imaging what an enviromental architecture may look like and what it may or may not do.