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  • Writer's picturePaul Dobraszczyk

Invisible cities: ants and architecture

Beetles may be the most profligate insect in terms of diversity of species; but it is ants (the Formicidae family) that are the most successful in numbers alone. The combined weight of every living ant has been estimated at half the mass of all insects; by another estimate, if the 7 billion+ humans weigh a combined 332 billion kg; the 10,000 trillion ants in the world come in at 40 billion kg. The tiny size of ants - individual species ranging from 0.7 to 30mm - belies their significance as gargantuan collectives - in effect, super-organisms, the largest colonies of ants comprising tens of millions of individuals - insect equivalents of megacities.

Still from It Happened at Lakewood Manor (1977)

Ants are ambivalent models - and evolutionary precursors - of human societies. If some have seen ant colonies as perfect worlds in miniature - hierarchical societies that function with almost perfect efficiency; others see the machine-like behaviour of ants as a mirror of dystopian nightmares of the mechanisation of human life. Still others are horrified by ants’ capacity to infest. Even as most of my early childhood memories have been lost to oblivion, one still stands out: a scene in the 1977 TV-movie It Happened at Lakewood Manor, when three unfortunate people become trapped in a house infested with killer ants. Realising that their attempts to remove the ants from their bodies only causes the insects to become more aggressive, they decide to sit as still as possible, breathing through long paper tubes, as the ants swarm over their bodies.

Just like beetles, ants can draw attention to the hidden spaces within our buildings - the microcosmos that we only perceive as we imagine in miniature. In Italo Calvino’s short-story ‘The Argentine Ant’ (1960), a young couple with a newborn baby are seduced by the dream of owning their own house, only to discover that it is infested with tiny ants. With a dawning realisation that there is no way to exterminate their unwanted house guests, the family’s dream of a settled life of domestic bliss is made untenable. The house they took to be ‘smooth and solid on the surface was in fact porous and honeycombed with cracks and holes’. Here, the miniature world of ants reveals new truths about architecture itself, namely that the age-old Virtruvian ideal of ‘firmness’ might in fact be an illusion. Calvino’s ants also break down the distinction between the inside and outside of buildings in a disturbing reversal of the harmony strived for by modernist architects: ‘the insects formed an uninterrupted veil, issued from what must be thousands of underground nests and feeding on the thick, sticky soil and the low vegetation’. These are creatures that are indifferent to our architectural barriers and thresholds: ‘an enemy like fog or sand’.

Walter Tschinkel standing next to his plaster model of a nest of the Florida harvester ant

Like termites, bees and wasps, ants are social insects that build, constructing or excavating nests that can last decades, so long as the queen ant is active. Subterranean colonies can grow very large: for example, ant biologist Walter Tschinkel’s plaster model of a nest of the Florida harvester ant is taller than a man. Almost jellyfish-like in its appearance, the model reveals hundreds of metres of interconnecting tunnels linking chambers for rearing larvae and depositing waste. In 2012, a vast nest built by millions of leafcutter ants in Brazil was discovered abandoned. It was then filled with concrete and allowed to set, after which the underground city was excavated to reveal the characteristic chambers and interconnecting tunnels built by the ants. In a similar manner to the sculptures made by British artist Rachel Whiteread, it’s the absent forms of architecture - the spaces in between the supporting materials - that are revealed. Inverted in this way, the ant colony appears as a fantastical organic architecture not unlike the bone-like structures of the Alien series of films, conceived by H.R. Giger.

Leafcutter ants' nest filled with concrete and excavated in Brazil in 2012

Ant architecture has often been compared to whatever is regarded as its human equivalent in terms of scale, the excavated leafcutter nest in Brazil being described as the ‘ant equivalent of the Great Wall of China’. Dense human settlements, particularly large cities, are often described, usually by their detractors, as human anthills; while the Victorian American naturalist Henry McCook compared ants’ nest to the ancient Egyptian pyramids, calculating how the volume of each structure related to the respective size of their builders. He concluded that the structures built by ants made our great cities look no more impressive than villages.

Screenshots from from Phase IV (1974)

Ants' capacity to build complex large-scale structures has led to imaginings of the possible power of their collective intelligence. Saul Bass’ 1974 science-fiction film Phase IV draws on such diverse themes as Cold War paranoia, reverse colonisation and the arrogance of science, in its presentation of ants as Machiavellian warmongers. A gigantic queen of an interspecies subterranean colony in the Arizona desert has come under the influence of an unknown alien intelligence. Her super-colony begins to attack its predators, including the residents of the unfortunately named ‘Paradise City’ - a half-completed development in the desert. One of the residents - a young woman named Kendra - is able to escape and joins a two-man scientific team in a geodesic research station. This has been constructed next to a cluster of mud towers built by the ants, each of which is angled to the sky by means of a triangular, mouth-like opening. When these are destroyed by one of the scientists, the ants retaliate by constructing mirrors that reflect sunlight back onto the research station, causing it to overheat and its scientific equipment to malfunction. It is eventually revealed that the ants’ intention is to infiltrate the human mind - Kendra rising out of the sand in a chamber of the subterranean colony to embrace her new life as an alien-controlled subject. The film is remarkable for Dick Bush’s cinematography, which uses macro-lenses to depict the lives of the ants themselves - we look through their compound eyes ‘seeing’ us, the spaces they move through magnified to human proportions. The ants even communicate to the scientists through an architectural drawing created by a printer: a dot inscribed in a circle, inscribed in a square representing the human subject, the research base and the ant world beyond.

Army ants joining their bodies together to form a living bridge

The simplified architectural representation produced by the ants in Phase IV may seem absurd, but it reflects a long fascination with ants’ ability to communicate with each other to build complex structures without blueprints or architects. As researchers have demonstrated, the organisation of construction of an ant colony is achieved through pheromones secreted by each individual ant that stimulates others to perform a particular task. In addition, ants use their body size as a template to configure spaces within the nest itself. Tropical army ants use their bodies as literal building blocks - they are nomadic hordes: each night, they swarm together in a bivouac around the queen; they also link their bodies together to make living bridges or rafts to survive flooding. Ants are also skilled at manipulating building materials, whether sand, mud or clay. Like traditional mud building in human settlements, ants have been observed creating ‘bricks’ - small hollow balls that are fitted together with their powerful jaws. Rather than being held as a blueprint in the individual ant’s genes, the form of the nest emerges through a continuous chain of communication. Thus, a higher-level of organisation emerges from below.

Contemporary ant farm designed as an educational tool for children

Ant farm created by Lycs Architecture as part of their ‘Learning from Ants’ project

The social organisation of ants has long fascinated children - and specially-designed ant farms have been popular toys since the nineteenth century (and still are in many countries). A glass-sided dirt-filled box containing ants becomes an artificial colony - the pathways excavated by the ants emerging before the eyes of enraptured youngsters. Ant farms have also been built by architects. For example, Lycs Architecture’s ‘Learning from Ants’ project explored how ants’ emergent building practices might be applied to architecture for humans. An experimental ant farm allowed meticulous observation of the ants’ tunnelling behaviour, revealing the ways in which they create spaces as they are using them. This direct equating of building and inhabitation has long been the dream of architects seeking an organic relationship between form and function; yet, it has usually led to a highly subjective and individualised way of building, completely at odds with ants’ ability to build collectively from below. A more subversive interpretation of ants’ building behaviour is STUDIO 1:1’s Urban Ant Farm installation from 2015. Here, hundreds of Spanish ants were allowed to ‘hack’ a scaled-map of Rotterdam, carving their own landscape of paths and tunnels through sand sandwiched between glass. The ants created an anarchic ‘counter-city’ through the existing one - an autonomous labyrinth of pathways beyond the control of any overarching authority.

STUDIO 1:1’s Urban Ant Farm installation (2015) - a map of Rotterdam that is 'hacked' by ants

This tension between ants as a highly-organised and ordered collective - a model animal society for humans to observe - and an anarchic disruptor of anthropocentric building is characteristic of human engagements with these insects. Contemplating the social organisation of the ant farm, children would have fantasised about being in charge of a miniature kingdom - the fantasist becoming, comparatively, a giant in his own world. But ant farms also demonstrate insects’ utter disregard for the order that humans impose upon the world and the fact that the human urge to expand and protect its borders is no different to the ants. These insects may be miniature in size but viewed close up, as beautifully illustrated in the cinematography of Phase IV, it is clear that ‘it is we who are beneath the perceptual threshold of the ant, and not the other way around. The ant burrows and spreads across a globe in which humans are too insignificant to appear in its gaze’.

House Taken installed on the Capitolo Nacional de Colombia in Bogotá in 2010

Colombian artist Rafael Gomez Barros has reversed the characteristic miniature view of ants in his House Taken series from 2008 onwards that comprises more than 3,000 giant fibreglass ants installed on the facades of prominent buildings and in gallery spaces. Each ant is made from a mould of two human skulls, the resulting swarm symbolising the forced displacement and uprooting of human communities in the wake of globalisation. Together, the giant ants also bring us back to the fear of infestation that characterises human engagement with these insects. They call attention to the all-too-common portrayal of migrants as a less-than-human infestation - an unwanted invasion. By magnifying ants and making them attack architecture, Barros also reminds us that the way humans see the world is not so much a matter of fact as one of perspective. Giant ants shake the ground of our own assumptions about the nature of space itself. They remind us of myriad invisible cities beneath the visible ones, whether those are made by humans or other, decidedly alien creatures.

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