• RAO approach fall maxres

The Riverlands Avian Observatory sits next to a reconstructed wetland near the juncture of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Developed by the Audubon Society and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, it was designed in 2013 by Andrew Colopy of Cobalt Office and his students at Washington University in St. Louis (he’s now an assistant professor at Rice).

The observatory helps visiting student groups and bird-watchers assist the Corps, which has been taking measures to restore habitat they’ve destroyed over the years in flood mitigation projects. The aim is to identify and track avian species. The design had to account for the periodic, controlled flooding of the site, meanwhile concealing inhabitants from watchful birds. “Aesthetically, it does not matter what color it is, or what it looks like,” Colopy says. “The only thing that matters is if the birds can sense movement and sound from those on the inside.”

The Army Corps prepared the site, raising the ground to provide a better vantage point. A concrete cantilever on one end of the observatory increases this elevation, further improving views across the wetland and making the building — with its segmented panels of aluminum, recycled paper, and resin — resemble a geometric caterpillar. The form was derived from a computational analysis that sought to shade the building from the East, which, paired with the black interior, makes it difficult for birds to see inside. Perforated metal surfaces absorb sound on the interior. The angled window modules provide a variety of heights and orientations to accommodate children as well as adults. Every piece of exterior cladding is removable in the event of a flood: They hang from the top beams of the wood structure and bolt to the base. In the six years that the observatory has been there, the Corps has removed the cladding and replaced it three times for scheduled floods.

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