With armory-sized ambitions, riffs of Archigram and Peter Cook, and a penchant for Japanese joinery, Huy Bui and Jon Schamm of HB Collaborative, together with Carlos J. Gómez de Llarena of med44, explore smart infrastructure for a city’s silent sentient beings. 'Plant-In City' is an iphone app fueled installation that straddles art, urban design, and horticulture. In configurable terrariums, ferns and mosses suspend like a primordial visage of Mesa Verde, embedded with sophisticated sensors allowing users to feed their plants from their smart phones—a welcome adaptation for the traveler tired of finding a house plant sitter. Architizer-er Caitlin Blanchfield sat down with HB in their studio to learn a bit more about their budding metropolis was built.
What was the starting point for plant-in city: is it an architectural project, an art installation, or something akin to gardening?
Huy Bui: At first we were thinking about a living wall, which is dynamic yet, at the same time, a little static. So we thought about modularizing it and making it mobile—breaking it down into small pieces.
I've always been inspired by Archigram’s plug-in city, but I also always felt it didn't quite work in the reality of the urban design scale; for plants, though, it can work. With that in mind, it can be really large in scale. That’s what we're envisioning.
The installation is called "plant-in city" but it is broken down into discrete parts, how do you see these pieces working together as a city, and as individual units?
Jon Schramm: It is like a city because one unit could be a building, but together they could be like a neighborhood or an ecosystem. It’s playing off the grid. These frames have their own infrastructures within them, whether it’s lighting or water pipes, so they also suggest ways to transfer electricity or power.
There is this play between low-tech and high-tech. For example, with watering. Our first water test was with a bottle where we poured water and it just trickled down, but we are trying to get more sophisticated, using grey water or recycled water or even catch water.
HB: The largest theme in this project is water. Every city has an identity: the way it transports people, for instance, or density. For us it’s about moving water—the way it trickles from one zone to another.
And how are these constructed?
HB: We love working with cedar. This is all Japanese joinery, there are no nails, no screws.
JS: Again low-tech, high-tech
There is also the high tech aspect then, which is the remote iphone application, how does that part work?
JS: That’s where Carlos, from Med 44, comes in. He's on the IT end.
HB: We first approached him thinking it would be interesting to water these plants from our phones. A lot of architects and technologists are applying a similar concept on a larger scale—with smart technology in smart buildings and smart cities that use sensors to gauge traffic patterns and weather patterns. What we like about this scale is our ability to have a degree of control and to experiment. This project is an open laboratory where we are finding new plants, new technology, different energy systems and something we can always work into it, so it’s never static, it’s always developing.
The strongest idea in this project is scale; there is really no scale here. You could have 1:1000 scale--maybe this is a little village--but it’s also part of a bigger system which is maybe 1:1. Put a little Lego man in here and it changes the whole context, you are always recalibrating the scale without changing the project.
Ultimately, how big do you see “plant-in city” becoming?
JS: We want it to be really big.
HB: I was at the Tom Sachs exhibition at the Armory, and that space is enormous, you could house thousands and thousands of these. You can create any diverse ecosystem you can imagine, with a whole diversity of plants.
Traditionally in cities the narrative is one of people dominating the natural landscape, how has working with plants reoriented your relationship to the natural landscape?
JS: we're still figuring that out. We are starting with a clean slate and working with the conditions of plants and nature, that is the primary design and then we will accommodate different life forms back into the project.