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A mesocosm, or “medium world,”  is an infrastructure for long-term outdoor ecological experiments. According to the systems ecologist Eugene P. Odum, mesocosms are situated between the microcosm of the laboratory and the macrocosm of the planet, enabling observations of real-world conditions. Filled with soil, air, water, flora, and fauna, mesocosms exist within (or simulate) a variety of ecosystems such as forest streams, oceans, and coastal prairies. Mesocosms are key experimental infrastructures for studying the effects of anthropogenic climate change and environmental toxicity on aquatic and terrestrial ecologies. They are typically organized into arrays of self-similar environmental “patches” in which climatic and biochemical variables such as temperature or atmospheric composition are adjusted to simulate changes in an ecosystem.


This project documents nine mesocosm experiments from all over the world, studying the complex systems of environmental exchange between each structure and its situated ecosystem. Alongside this research, the exhibition contains a full-scale mesocosm prototype transplanted into the gallery alongside four architectural experiments, each exploring different enclosure and climate systems. Because mesocosms are immersed in the “real world,” they are subject to the contingencies of weather, atmospheric transition, and species activity. To accommodate these elements, their envelopes must be breathable, operable, and adjustable, suggesting ways to rethink architecture’s relationship to the land and its hydrological, geological, and ecological cycles. Rather than a hermetically sealed box, mesocosm design-thinking treats space as an open-ended and open-air environment. Using responsive louvers, retractable shading enclosures, solar capture roof systems, water catchment infrastructures, and low-impact foundations, these structures encourage new ways to calibrate the environment. Through a layered thermal enclosure, these types adjust temperature gradients and ventilation currents, deploy passive cooling systems and thermal chimneys, and create open-air spaces mitigated by large shading panels. Learning from the mesocosm experiments, all four types use tectonic frames that can be arrayed in multiple configurations, accommodating different scalar shifts: from small and intimate spaces to large collective areas extending through the structure.

MESO-COSM was exhibited at the Mashburn Gallery, University of Houston, TX, September - October 2023. 

Project Leads: Daniel Jacobs, Brittany Utting

Design & Research Team: Anna Brancaccio, Nino Chen, Maximilien Chong Lee Shin, Harish Krishnamoorthy, Jane Van Velden

Photographs by Sean Fleming /

MESO-COSM is sponsored by the Hines Scholar as Design/Design as Scholar (HdSd) Program of the Undergraduate Architecture Program at the Hines College of Architecture and Design, University of Houston. The exhibition is also funded by the Diluvial Houston Initiative, an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-supported project, and Rice Architecture.

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