Remnants of the Biosphere

[Editor’s Note: The photographer has gotten in touch with me again, on January 13, 2010, requesting that these images be taken down due to the unexpectedly specific terms of a usage agreement originally signed with Biosphere 2. The images have thus also been taken down from Sheldon’s own site. With any luck, however, these images will reappear in public sooner than later; for now, I have to honor the request of the photographer. The text of this post and the entirety of the often quite animated comments thread will remain. Apologies for this turn of events!]

Photographer Noah Sheldon got in touch the other week with a beautiful series of photos documenting the decrepit state of Biosphere 2, a semi-derelict bio-architectural experiment in the Arizona desert.

The largest sealed environment ever created, constructed at a cost of $200 million, and now falling somewhere between David Gissen’s idea of subnature—wherein the slow power of vegetative life is unleashed “as a transgressive animated force against buildings”—and a bioclimatically inspired Dubai, Biosphere 2 even included its own one million-gallon artificial sea.

“The structure was billed as the first large habitat for humans that would live and breathe on its own, as cut off from the earth as a spaceship,” the New York Times wrote back in 1992, but the project was a near-instant failure.

Scientists ridiculed it. Members of the support team resigned, charging publicly that the enterprise was awash in deception. And even some crew members living under the glass domes, gaunt after considerable loss of weight, tempers flaring, this winter threatened to mutiny if management did not repair a growing blot on the project’s reputation.

The entire site was sold to private developers in 2007, leaving the buildings still functional and open for tours but falling apart.

Sheldon was originally inspired to visit and photograph the site after reading in the New York Times that “suburban sprawl” had come to surround the once-remote research site.

Indeed, we read, real estate development has “conquered vast swaths of the Sonoran Desert. The Biosphere, miles from nowhere when it was built in the 1980s, is now within the reach of a building boom streaking north from Tucson and south from Phoenix (and which some demographers say will eventually join the two cities, once 100 miles apart).” Traffic jams are not infrequent where there were once country roads, and new suburbs have sprung up within just a few miles of the research site.

Now, like something straight out of J.G. Ballard, the property might someday be home to a development called Biosphere Estates.

Sheldon’s images, reproduced here with his permission, show the facility advancing into old age. A vast biological folly in the shadow of desert over-development, the project of Biosphere 2 seems particularly poignant in this unkempt state.

The fertile promise of the microcosm has been abandoned.

In this context, Biosphere 2 could perhaps be considered one of architect Francois Roche’s “buildings that die,” a term Roche used in a recent interview with Jeffrey Inaba. Indeed, in its current state Biosphere 2 is easily one of the ultimate candidates for Roche’s idea of “corrupted biotopes“; the site’s ongoing transformation into suburbia only makes this corruption more explicit.

Watching something originally built precisely as a simulation of the Earth—the 2 in “Biosphere 2” is meant to differentiate this place from the Earth itself, i.e. Biosphere 1—slowly taken over by the very forces it was meant to model is philosophically extraordinary: the model taken over by the thing it represents. A replicant in its dying throes.

In any case, these images have all been taken from Sheldon’s series; even more photos—and many other projects—can be found on his site.

57 thoughts on “Remnants of the Biosphere”

  1. I'm a Tucson resident, and I was at Biosphere 2 just this December, where I did not see the stated "semi-derelict" state.

    What I do note is a photographer's trip that started with an intent to document something (suburban expansion) in a negative light, end up being a diatribe on an only tangentially related structure, documented with carefully selected but not altogether representative images, based on an outdated understand of the structure's current condition and role.

    The site was a ranch, then a conference center, before the B2 project was ever conceived. B2 has never been "in the middle of nowhere"; it's always been within 30 miles of Tucson. Perhaps you might want to adjust your 19th-century standards of distance.

    The site has not been in any way abandoned. Currently the University of Arizona holds a 3-year lease on the property and manages it as a research facility.

    The "fertile promise of the microcosm" as you so hyperbolically put it, was nothing more than an experiment, one which failed chiefly due to human factors, although it did show that the promise was not so fertile after all. The botanical experiments currently in progress now will probably ultimately prove to be of much more value to humanity.

    I don't mean to sound like a B2 cheerleader; I just find it to be an interesting place which this piece does not represent properly. Might I suggest you (the writer) take a trip down here sometime to check my assertions?

  2. Image 8 is the inside of one of the "lungs". Solar heating of the air inside B2 causes an increase in pressure. To avoid blowing out seals and glass panels, they built these two lung buildings, connected to the main structure via air tunnels (image #7). Each lung has a flexible membrane roof (the black part of the ceiling) that allows for expansion. That middle part of the ceiling (with the legs that would support it if it were on the ground) is actually a counterweight weighing many tons, held up in the air entirely by the air pressure, to pull the membrane down and drive the air back into the main structure when the pressure decreases.

  3. Very cool to see how B2 looks now.

    Sometime in the early/mid 1990s we visited relatives in the Tucson area; one of the things I remember from that trip was hiking up to a ridge in the snow (snow in the desert, that was cool enough!) and peering down through binoculars at the Biosphere buildings in the valley below.

    Random memory, brought back by this post. Thanks!

    I also remember reading, much more recently, about the problems with CO2 in B2; turns out that concrete while relatively new absorbs (or excretes? Can't recall) CO2, which usually doesn't matter at all, but turned out to matter to a closed biosphere like B2, which wound up with a gas imbalance as a result!

  4. I used to read a lot about B2 as a student and even "pitched" the whole geoengineering idea to my class mates in a presentation. Now some 15 years ago these pictures show how easy it is to dream up stuff but what a struggle to maintain and transform them into real life. Thanks for sharing!

  5. I think Biosphere was utmost first creates to be 'cool' for a nerd. Which it achieved and as a child I was semi envious of the residents (apart from the semi-social isolation part).

    The building itself appears to be in perfect structural condition and indeed there doesn't appear to be a pain of glass broken. So far from it being taken over by nature it appears to be just getting a little untidy (how were the plants and trees supposed to survive if they are not watered?).

    I don't remember the inception of the project but surely all Scientific projects are naive because if you knew the outcome what would be the point in doing them.

    Any way, beautiful images of an incredible structure.

  6. When I first saw this post I was distraught that I hadn't yet been to visit and yet the place was dying. After reading some of the comments though, I'm hopeful I'll still be able to see it.

    Thanks for posting these pix and stimulating good conversations. This was really interesting.

  7. Wirelizard, the concrete issue with CO2 is just one of the many gas imbalances they've had to deal with over time. I recall the first time I visited B2, before it was "open for tours" they were in the process of ripping out all the wooden walkways in side and replacing them with what these days we know as Trex decking. The reason being that the natural wood was in fact still driving chemical reactions with the air and throwing off the balance of the environment.

    When I last visited B2 it was "open for tours" and we actually went inside. This would have been 2001 or 2002 maybe? At the time one of the issues they were having was with some of the trees having grown tall enough that they were in contact with the roof, the heat of which was killing them. Which also tweaked the balance of the environment in a way that wasn't predicted/expected.

    These "problems" they ran into, that a lot of folks ridicule the project as a failure for… these are the kinds of new learning that science is all about. They just prove how successful the actual research at B2 actually has been and what we've learned from it.

  8. Rather than Ballard, that philosophical twinge you point out of the real world eating the thing designed to model it reminds me of Borges's story On Exactitude in Scinece, short enough to quote here in its entirety:

    "In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography."

  9. I was there as a student for a summer back in 2001. It was still maintained and very vibrant with all kinds of research going on.

    The campus surrounding it had offices for faculty, classrooms, a student village, ect.

    It was one of the best summers of my life, spent in the Biosphere and in the Sonoran Desert around it. I am saddened to hear that some view it as worthless and abandoned. I fully agree with others who have posted that the data still being collected is just as valuable and authentic, even though the orrigional intent of the building is lost.

  10. You can dance if you want to…you can leave your world behind….

    I wonder if Steven Baldwin's career is hiding in there anywhere.

  11. i agree with wes s; i visited biosphere 2 about 3 years ago, and it seemed to be in great shape. maybe a few dead plants but certainly not in a state of decay. doesn't look too shabby in the pics, either.

  12. beautiful photos- thank you.

    wes- bldgblog is hyperbolic like bukowski was visceral. it's his calling card. but thank you for the other (more informative) side of the coin.

  13. I was there a ~week after the first "experiment" started. Remember they locked everyone in and immediately someone cut there finger and was let out to go to the hospital? The self contained didn't include the giant diesel generators the cooled and powered the dome. But one thing I can say is that there were plenty of lovely gift shops (every tram stop) I got a shot glass and some offical BS2 underpants. Just like a real scientist!

  14. I was a student there in the Fall of '03 and visited it again in Jan 09. Soo sad at the breakdown. Though, when we left they were raising the CO2 level as an ongoing experiment to see exactly what we'd be facing in the future – I'm wondering if we are looking at photos of the result.

  15. I got a few pencils and a T-shirt from the gift shops there in junior high, though I honestly can't remember if I visited just before or just after the first group was sealed inside. I was crazy about Biosphere 2 back then–and so jealous.

    I do remember several old ladies on the tour group just not getting the concept. They kept asking, "Will they be able to come out and visit their families?" "Will people be able to visit them inside?" "Can they get mail or groceries?" Every time, our tour guide patiently explained that the system would be closed.

    I also remember asking about a pollination problem I had read about in some science magazine … something about hummingbirds having to handle the flowers because bees weren't able to fly inside. I was met with stunned silence, from the old ladies and the tour group leader.

  16. Too sad to hear that the desert around the BioSphere is being gobbled up for yet more useless urban sprawl in an area that already have thousands of empty/foreclosed houses.

    I just wonder what will happen when the water that is needed to support these "development" is no more…

  17. I see a fantastic set for an SF movie!

    Kudos to one and all for showing us this Ballardian dystopia. As I commented to a friend, these overgrown environs remind me of a far-future tale of a multi-generational starship, its mission forgotten, the crew reverted to savagery. These pictures really do tell a story…and it's a sad, disturing one…

  18. I visited there sometime in 1993 when the experiments were occurring and remember seeing the members working inside the dome. As we were walking around the perimeter of the dome my wife noticed some ants crawling around both inside and outside of one of the glass panels suggesting that the integrity of the dome might not be as tight as desired.

    It's unfortunate that the program got as much flak as it did as I've always thought that the concept and intent was a valid and worthy scientific endeavour.

  19. Although I enjoyed the images very much, I agree with Mr. Shull- Biosphere is very much alive thanks to University of Arizona who is now using it extensively as a research facility. Like all photographers, Mr. Sheldon frames his interest in the viewfinder and leaves out the rest. However, the text is more misleading than the images. You can still find some derelict looking areas around the edges but it could be that they too are part of an experiment. Since U of A moved in there is a new interdisciplinary focus on education, research and outreach, especially in the areas of sustainability, drought and climate change. I am an artist-in-residence at Biosphere 2 and feel fortunate to have access to this incredible facility and the thoughtful and tireless people who run it.

    Here's a link to my work from Terraria Gigantica: the World Under Glass that includes images from Biosphere 2 (some of the same subjects):

  20. Biosphere 2 may have failed as a self-contained, functioning scale model of the Earth, but it was an instructive failure; it showed that we don't yet understand enough about nature to replicate it.

    Some day perhaps, we will know enough.

  21. I was a docent at Biosphere 2 in 2001-2002. It was going great then, lots of tourists and activity. It was sad to see these pictures, but the comments made me feel better. Glad to know the U of A is using it for various experiments. The place is too fantastic to let go.

  22. In essence, Rick, the blog post says that "the buildings [are] still functional and open for tours but falling apart." Perhaps you missed that part. And the only use of the word "abandoned" in this entire post is in reference to the scientific use of Biosphere 2 as a microcosm/test-site for larger planetary processes. Biosphere 2 is now a tourist site; it is no longer a sealed atmospheric environment. In any case, as you can see by following the links provided throughout this post, the Biosphere 2 project, in its original sense, ended way back in the 1990s.

    What this post does do is rightfully point out the decrepit status of much of the facilities there, with dying vegetation, rusting handrails, and derelict air-seal equipment, and it nowhere states that Biosphere 2 is an abandoned structure simply disappearing back into the desert sands.

  23. It's not correct to label B2 as a failure. The only main technical problem was a simple design flaw.

    Exposed concrete absorbed O2 and CO2 which created a high altitude atmosphere for the crew, when this was solved everything worked fine technically.

    There was scientist involved, but they were not aloud to lead. It was controlled by some confused New Age people with questionable agenda, that's why the scientific community cut off all ties with the project.

    From what I can see B2 clearly shows that we have the means to create a liveable biosphere, just by avoiding some simple mistakes.

    You're wrong to ridicule these attempts, there are much to learn from them.

  24. it nowhere states that Biosphere 2 is an abandoned structure simply disappearing back into the desert sands.

    Actually, the post title, "Remnants of the Biosphere" says that. Remnants are the small parts that remain as scraps — Biosphere 2 is alive and well as a research facility, not just as a tourist trap.

    Nowhere in your blog post does it say that there's continuing interdisciplinary university research happening in the facility either — and the dead plants that are seen may or may not be part of those experiments.

    You have your axe to grind, and many other people have theirs … but at least acknowledge facts that directly contradict your thesis.

  25. All credit to the photographer. But the commentary is pretty lame:

    "near instant failure? …
    vast biological folly?"

    This was an experiment – an enormously ambitious and important one. It quickly discovered difficult truths: that's a success in experimental terms.

    I find it interesting – and unattractive – how much hostility the project generated and still generates (from Murdoch's Fox News for example).

    I expect it was seen as a challenge to conventional wisdom and the oil-driven economy. But we need good science about sustainable living.

  26. William, this is an architecture website, and I made the mistake of using the word "folly" in its architectural sense. Thus, the Biosphere 2 is a "vast biological folly." My bad.

    Karl Katzke, I have no "axe to grind" here, although I can't speak for the multiple commenters on this post (or the websites linking to this post). I, personally, think the Biosphere 2 project is amazingly interesting, and I have, in fact, covered simulated environments, large-scale immersive science experiments, planetary exploration, geo-biological research, atmospheric research, non-fossil fuel-based building technologies, and much more on this website for years. All of those are of intense and ongoing interest to me.

    However, I am also interested in buildings that are in a state of decay, and what happens to architecture when it begins to exhibit untreated signs of age. The Biosphere 2 thus fits all of these interests very nearly perfectly, and so I wrote a post about the facility's current architectural state in order to explore these things: it is surrounded by suburban sprawl, it has become less than beautifully maintained, and it is—though my thoughts on this are based entirely on articles published in places like the New York Times and MSNBC (not "Murdoch's Fox News," that is)—on the financial verge of being removed altogether for future housing projects. On top of that, Sheldon's photographs are amazing—and all of these factors came together into the post you see here.

    And the title—"Remnants of the Biosphere"—is exactly that: this is what remains of the Biosphere 2 project.

    Yes, the Biosphere 2's simulated environment was an extraordinary undertaking; unfortunately, this post was not about Biosphere 2 and its scientific goals. This post was about what happens when a large-scale eco-simulation loses its original purpose and begins visibly aging, and goes from being surrounded by the desert to surrounded by suburbia. Indeed, that is less a negative comment about Biosphere 2 than it is a portrait of real estate practices in the Arizona desert ("Biosphere Estates"?!).

  27. I disagree with the opinions that Biosphere 2 is a forgotten and decaying relic. Like others have mentioned, Biosphere 2 is now an active research facility operated by the University of Arizona in Tucson.

    The structure itself is a marvel of engineering and construction unlike anything else. While the mainstream media continues to ridicule the missions as failures, they are overlooking the fact that Biosphere 2 was and still is a research facility from which a LOT has been learned!

    The images here do not accurately represent the Biosphere 2 facility in its current conditions. I think perhaps the photographer needs to check his camera settings because the ocean biome is in fact a vibrant blue color, not gray as portrayed here.

    The coastal fog desert and rainforest look exactly as they are supposed to. The photos of the lungs and access tunnels are behind-the-scenes areas that do not reflect the condition of the facility as a whole. That's like taking a photo of a janitorial closet or storage room at NASA and claiming the entire organization is "derelict."

    Please get the story straight before posting misinformation about the Biosphere 2 facility.

  28. There's something wrong here. I've been talking with a researcher at the Turin polytechnic who's been in Biosphere 2 no later than last year, and apparently it's no decaying relic (or tourist spot) at all! This guy was actually extremely enthusiastic about the place both as a research facility and as a architectural curiosity. Ironically, he told me that what area really decaying are the nearby attempt for suburban expansion (because of the financial crisis).
    Now that's quite Ballardian!

  29. A very special kind of ruin, perhaps it appeals to us because there is comfort in seeing that everything made by man shares our mortality. And perhaps the huge response to this post and those denying its failure are also denying mortality?

    I was enthralled with this project since the day it opened and I'm glad to see it again. These are stunning images.

    Does anyone know or have images of the soviet biosphere projects? I would love to photograph those or see photos of them. They were top secret but apparently the soviets were running the same experiments at the time.

  30. I'm friends with one of the advising designers of B2. we talked about the project once, and yes, it's an extremely expensive experiment to model what are both (currently) unrealistic and (in the foreseeable future) extremely expensive ideas…like colonizing Mars, the moon, or what have you. We can't afford the power and cost and materials to send a few dozen there now with existing technology, but there are lessons to learned from any experiment. I wish they had used a bit more common sense with this though. it was bound to fail, and i can only assume that the right voices weren't heard or listened to early on. "what about strong winds?" someone probably said to the frowns of everyone around them. in the last 15 years we proved/learned that trees have most of their root mass beyond their canopy…sometimes for hundreds of yards to find water.
    Perhaps the failure stems from ignorance or an arrogant sense of conquest…and probably a really good economy. flush with cash, too many scientists get funding. sometimes megalomaniacal funders massage their larger than life egos to get naming rights, as if they're playing roulette in vegas. simple, efficient design is what nature does best. we have so much yet to learn from Bioshpere 1 (aka Earth).
    The major design flaw was lack of strong, random winds.
    Trees fall over after a decade or so when they aren't "challenged" by winds. obviously, there is such a thing as too windy, and …
    recreating strong wind without miles of atmospheric conditions, polar ice caps, warming oceans, et cetera would require some very intense energy usage and/or revolutionary passive air flow designing.
    we tend to treat, beat and heat to make cheap knock-offs of nature.
    sure, these are seasonal pics, and sure "mistakes were/are made" hopefully the scientists are doing everything they can to bring the lessons to the light of day!
    nature does it all in daylight, in water and mostly at room temp.
    The score if we learn from our mistakes:
    biology 1
    biologists 1
    IT'S A TIE!
    time for overtime!
    don't let the current environment fool you.
    early explorers wrote of a lush landscape where now we have far larger deserts. the myth of naturally expanding deserts annoys me.
    but then again, I'm in the business of shrinking them, so I'm biased in favor of abundance.
    peace and cheers to all!

  31. What a freakin' beat-up, man! By all accounts, this place is alive and kicking ass!

    As for the 'encroaching urban sprawl', check out Google Maps (Elias owned you)!

    Man, you seriously need to perform a cranial-rectal extraction and actually do some research before you post. A little wear here and there is not necessarily a sign of decay – it can mean anything from 'sacrificial anode needs replacing' to 'part's near the end of its service life' (or in this case, the experiment deals with die-off… duh).

    This is why we generally prefer architects being seen, and not heard – because your culture tends to pontificate – absolute pseudo-intellectual nonsense!

    Using big words doesn't make you sound smart!

    (unlike industrial designers, who occasionally make sense – but still shouldn't be allowed out in public)

  32. To make things even easier for Aiden, who sounds like he needs some help out there in the big confusing world, here is a view of some nearby suburbs. This is probably why the New York Times wrote in 2006 that "the Biosphere, miles from nowhere when it was built in the 1980s, is now within the reach of a building boom streaking north from Tucson and south from Phoenix (and which some demographers say will eventually join the two cities, once 100 miles apart)."

    Further: "On a recent Friday [in 2006], traffic was bumper to bumper on Oracle Road, outside the entrance to the Biosphere grounds. Roads were torn up, as construction crews dug trenches for water mains to serve the growing population. But at the Biosphere, there were about 10 cars in the parking lot and about that many people in the visitor center. 'Clearly, you can't run it as a tourist attraction,' said Mr. Bowen, the president of Decisions [and referring to the nearby Biosphere]. 'It's too expensive to maintain.'"

    In any case, to Trevor Freeman's point—Trevor writes that this post is "like taking a photo of a janitorial closet or storage room at NASA and claiming the entire organization is 'derelict'"—this is a fair enough comparison to make. However, if someone were to photograph the NYC subway system, which is visibly falling apart and remains only 36 hours away from flooding if the pumps give out that long, and if I were then to label those photos "The Ruins of the NYC Subway System," I can assume that at least a dozen trolls like Aiden would leap in to point out that, no, millions of people use the New York City subway system everyday, don't I know that? It can't possibly be a ruin…

    In which case, Literality Night School 101 is clearly turning out a lot of stellar graduates.

    But as the above post has stated all along, including links to the Biosphere 2 website, the complex is still functional and it is open for tours—but it is no longer the closed-environment microcosm it was once intended to be. That vision, of a fertile microcosm in the desert, has been abandoned—not the complex of buildings in which that dream was once housed.

    In sum, all the major points of this post stand for me, although if I had known it was going to be read by 90,000+ new readers in a three-day span, I would obviously have made these latter points substantially more clear in the original telling.

  33. On a side note, there were several dozen vehicles parked out on New Year's Day. So what difference does it make when 10 cars are parked outside, as quoted by Geoff, than several dozen cars? Rather than one experience contradicting another's experience, shouldn't there be some coalescence between the two, unless there is some faulty bias?

  34. The last time I've been to Biosphere was a 2 hour drive on New Year's Day, and what intrigues me is how those photographs were taken in areas that were not part of the tour path. Not only that, but access to the Biosphere requires a tour guide.

    It's amazing when I compare my photos with Noah's, I sense his odd selection of decrepit scenes, minus the Savannah desert ones because we all can't expect a desert to be anything but flourishing. What happened to the rest of the trail, and how did I miss these shots?

    I guess if Biosphere 2 is abandoned as it is depicted to be, then someone please go there and make sure I'm not seeing things.

    I'm not a tree hugger and I really don't care too much for Biosphere 2's agenda, but I'm getting real tired of those calling it a technological failure. Let them do what they want and at least thank them for allowing people like Noah to enjoy the experience.

  35. Hey everybody: The photographer has gotten in touch with me again, on January 13, 2010, requesting that his images be taken down due to the unexpectedly specific terms of a usage agreement originally signed with the administrators of Biosphere 2. The images have thus also been taken down from Sheldon's own site.

    With any luck, however, all of these photographs will reappear in public—and hopefully on BLDGBLOG!—sooner than later. For now, I have to honor the request of the photographer.

    The text of this post and the entirety of the often quite animated comments thread will remain. Apologies for this turn of events!

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