by Timothy Beatley

About a year ago I happened to duck into Sightglass Coffee, in the South of Market neighborhood of San Francisco, a place that had been highly recommended to me. The coffee there was good, but I was especially pleasantly surprised to discovered two beautiful glass terraria sitting on a counter near the shop’s front windows. These glass terraria were visually striking, one of them quite large, and each filled with luscious green plants. They were about the only green thing in sight and the combination of a lovely large hand-blown container a small natural wonder before my eyes.

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I inquired about their design and learned that they were the handiwork of a small San Francisco design firm called Crooked Nest. I shortly contacted them and thus began a fruitful relationship that resulted in the design and making of our own glass terrarium, what we quickly began calling our “biophilic bubble.”

I learned from Candace Silvey, one of the two partners in this small firm, and the one we were to work closely with in designing the bubble, that her firm designs and creates, in addition to terraria, many other small spaces of nature in the city, from green walls to backyard gardens.

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In a later phone interview Candace told me glass terraria have become very popular, and that they seem to resonate with clients in the same way they did for me when I saw them in Sightglass. They’ve designed and sold about 50 of the large ones so far, each one unique and made-to-order. As Candace explained “Someone will call us tell us they’re sort of dreaming of this particular shape, or they want to house this type of plant program inside, and we’ll sort of create them to fit the space.” The plants are all grown locally, though they are not necessary local species.

Candace believes strongly in the power and benefits of these small bits of glass-encased nature. “People absolutely love them. They really add a lot of joy to the lives of people who interact with them…Especially in urban environments they bring so much light into people’s live.” And they are fairly long-living, with some of her early creations going on four years.

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Candace often uses terms like “interaction” to describe how owners of these terraria relate to them. Not just a passive watching, but they become, she says, almost like pets. They are living assemblages of course and it makes sense that they would actively engage us, seek our gaze and active attention as we see them, enjoy them, walk by them in the course of daily routine.

The power of small bits of indoor nature has a been a theme we have explore before here, and Crooked Nest’s design work reminds me of writer Elizabeth Tova Bailey, and her eloquent book The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (see the full interview on biophiliccities.org: ). Bailey’s book is about the healing power of a snail, the connection and companionship that helped her endure a debilitating illness, and her journey in understanding, and celebrating, the fascinating and complex biology of this animal.

Along the way, Bailey has re-discovered and is writing about the London physician Dr. Nathaniel Ward, who invented the so-called “Wardian Case,” essentially an early terrarium that allowed residents of a then very-dirty London to have a little nature nearby, where growing anything outside was difficult or impossible (and the invention also transformed the shipping of plants, allowing them to survive long journey’s).

Crooked Nest updates the idea in some important ways, it seems to me—the bubbles are very beautiful, and there is an organic, biophilic feeling to the hand-blown glass containers, a suiting material and medium to house the plant life. As Stephen Kellert reminded us at several points during our Biophilic Cities Network launch, humans spend so much of our time inside that it behooves us to find clever ways to bring the outside in, and this is one powerful way.

And so over the late summer and early fall we waited excitedly for our bubble to arrive. It did so, just in time for display in our Biophilic Cities Launch exhibition, in the Emaleh Gallery. The arrival was an event in itself, as a rather large box was unloaded , and with the top soon off we discovered the precious egg inside! It was packed lovingly (and would have endured a trip to the moon).

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Designing a stand to display the bubble was another challenge, taken up largely by Biophilic Cities associate Sarah Schramm, a graduate landscape architecture student. With help from Melissa Goldman and Architecture School woodshop, they designed and built a spectacular table, made with recycled wood and metal, and routed with circular grooves, creating the biophilic effect of ripples of water (with the bubble placed in the center)!

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The bubble was the center of exhibition, but is now a permanent fixture in the School of Architecture, placed prominently and seen as one enters the School’s main plaza level entrance. It is distinctive and visually striking, and a little bit of micro-nature in a place that needs it. I am not entirely sure what the long term effect of the bubble will be in the School, but I suspect its presence will continue to induce attention and smiles and will, in a small but important way, enhance the work environment of our school.

Post by Timothy Beatley

Timothy Beatley, PhD, is the Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities & Chair of the Department of Urban & Environmental Planning at the UVa School of Architecture.