Architect Creates Estates for Wild Animals

Fritz Haeg i i

Artist Fritz Haeg stands in front of the geodesic dome in Los Angeles where he lived for many years. Jennifer Sharpe for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jennifer Sharpe for NPR
Fritz Haeg

Artist Fritz Haeg stands in front of the geodesic dome in Los Angeles where he lived for many years.

Jennifer Sharpe for NPR

Artist Fritz Haeg builds homes for wild animals in urban areas with the hope of luring them back. This week his installation appears outside New York's Whitney Museum. What kind of creatures can we expect?

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ANTHONY BROOKS, host:

Time now for a story that moves from finances to art to architecture to furry little creatures. What more could you want from a radio story? Here's DAY TO DAY's contributor, Jennifer Sharpe.

JENNIFER SHARPE: A few months ago, friends visiting from New York took me to a part in a geodesic dome out in an L.A. neighborhood I'd never even heard of. It was the owner's last party before putting the house up for sale. He was taking his life on the road to go build homes for animals as part of a project he calls Animal Estates.

Mr. FRITZ HAEG (Artist and Architect): Animals that you can build homes for as a human, and they'll actually move into them and enjoy them.

SHARPE: Artist and architect Fritz Haeg says he's hoping to spark a movement.

Mr. HAEG: I want to make them as simple and primitive and handmade as possible so that anyone can look at them and imagine building one on their own property. So you know, the owl nest box is just a 24-inch square, plywood cube with a perch in front of the hole. That's it.

SHARPE: He was packing up the dome, and in a few days would be off to New York to go build the first of the animal estates outside the Whitney Museum. They've invited him to participate in their biannual exhibition.

Mr. HAEG: So there'll be homes for 12 animals that used to live on that exact piece of land 400 years ago, where the museum currently stands, at the corner of Madison and 75th.

SHARPE: Possums, salamanders, flying squirrels.

Mr. HAEG: There'll be a beaver dam. There'll be a huge eagle's nest in the entry portico. There'll be a bobcat den inside of a hollow log, leaning against a beaver lodge and then coming out of the water, purple martin homes.

SHARPE: To find out what animals lived there 400 years ago, Haeg turned to Eric Sanderson of the Wildlife Conservation Society. He heads up the Mannahatta Project, an ecological reconstruction of New York City as it would have been when the Dutch settlers arrived.

Mr. ERIC SANDERSON (Wildlife Conservation Society): It turns out that Manhattan was a really bio-diverse place.

SHARPE: To recapture the island's lost ecology, Sanderson analyzed a detailed topographical map made by the British in 1782.

Mr. SANDERSON: There were 88 miles of streams...

SHARPE: As well as accounts written by the island's first European visitors.

Mr. SANDERSON: This guy, Peter Calm(ph), who was a botanist, complained it was so loud because of all the frogs. He said the spring peepers are so loud, a man can't hear himself think.

SHARPE: As for 75th and Madison, where the Whitney now stands, it was a forest.

Mr. SANDERSON: Big, old-growth (unintelligible) trees, you know, ones that would be bigger than you could get your arms around and big chestnut trees. There was a little stream. It sort of sits on top of a little knoll that would've been in the forest.

SHARPE: I asked Sanderson if he thought there was any possibility the animals would return.

Mr. SANDERSON: Last year out of nowhere this beaver got in the Bronx River, passed all the way through Westchester, through all, you know, Scarsdale and Hartsdale and all the beautiful suburbs up there and then decided to settle in the Bronx Zoo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHARPE: A couple of weeks into the animal estate's build-out, I called the biennial's co-curator, Shamim Momem.

Ms. SHAMIM MOMEM (Curator): Actually, today we had sort of a triumphant moment of hoisting the eagle's nest up onto the canopy.

SHARPE: That the brutalist architecture of the Whitney Museum had been interrupted by a giant eagle's nest is even more amazing when you consider that the nest's architect fled the New York art scene eight years ago.

Mr. HAEG: It's interesting because when I was in New York, I was very woefully trying to make art with a capital A, as one does in New York when you're so aware of art with a capital A there, which isn't here, I don't think. It's a lowercase A.

SHARPE: When Haeg arrived in Los Angeles, he dropped his ambitions as an artist.

Mr. HAEG: Basically the first three months, I just further into debt buying plants and gardening and not looking for work.

SHARPE: A year later, he moved into the geodesic dome and began hosting experimental salons that were open to the public.

Mr. HAEG: One of my favorites was the knitknit salon, which was just people making things with their hands all day.

SHARPE: Eventually, he started inviting suburban homeowners to remove their lawns and replace them with edible gardens or edible estates, as he calls them.

Mr. HAEG: Taking that piece of land that previously was isolating one place to the next and actually using it as a space that starts to connect people back in, because if you're growing food in your front lawn, you're out there all the time, so you're seeing people out there, and it changes the whole dynamic of the street.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

SHARPE: As he gave me a final tour of his house, Haeg stopped in front of a circular painting that was hanging at eye level.

Mr. HAEG: Did you ever see my hidden bedroom? Probably not during the party.

SHARPE: Reaching for the edge of the painting, he swung it open like a door. Behind it, there was a hole cut into the wall that opened into a small burrow, just big enough for a bed and a telephone.

SHARPE: Do you actually sleep in there?

Mr. HAEG: Mmm-hmm.

SHARPE: As I poked my head into the space, I suddenly caught a glimpse of what it would feel like to be one of his clients: an early animal settler arriving in Manhattan for the 2008 Whitney Biennial.

For NPR News, I'm Jennifer Sharpe.

(Soundbite of animals)

BROOKS: And for pictures of some of the animal estates and other interesting links, go to our Web site: npr.org.

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