The MBAD African Bead Museum has been described as “a true jewel in the city of Detroit”. Simultaneously outsider art, African interpretive cosmology and urban renovation, the walk-though murals and small bead shop draw hundreds of tourists every year. But there is no local source for the beads; “make your own beading” kits and workshops use plastic. This project will combine the African traditions of generative economy with contemporary technology design to create an African Futurist greenhouse.
The greenhouse structure applies the circular scaling patterns of African traditional architecture with a hoop-house style enclosure. Scaling or “fractal” patterns are common in African design, and include not only architecture but also adornment such as necklaces, so the bead connection worked nicely. The interior will grow plant materials for bead creation, dye plants and other biomaterials. It will also supply fresh vegetables. A photovoltaic panel will supply greenhouse heating/cooling when needed, and it will be used to reduce museum energy bills at other times. These kinds of “mutual aid” sharing arrangements are also an African social tradition; here we apply it to energy engineering. Inspired by the rain catchment systems in the Casamance area of Senegal, we will use the curved greenhouse roof for rain harvesting.
By monitoring all of the above with environmental sensors and AI-controlled automation, we aim to create a small scale model for what could become a broader set of self-sufficient, sustainable urban practices that restore the links between living, making and growing so important to Indigenous traditions.
Community ownership and engagement is key. For that reason we have included some on-the-spot tutoring so that the labor for construction can come locally, even from those with no construction background, at fair pay (double minimum wage). 3D printing played a crucial role in helping to “translate” from the computational model to understanding in the heads, hands and heart of constructors the ground. Students from K-12 to community college to UM have also been involved: Detroit high school teacher Calvin Nellum kindly created a podcast about it here.Every weekend we host local high school students as interns. Here you can see them learning about the concept of homeostasis (both the analogous Indigenous concepts as well as the contributions to adaptation science from anti-racists) and applying it to temperature-controlled servos that regulate the vents.
Our pilot studies for growing beads is based on a Zulu tradition of using Job’ Tears (Coix lacryma-jobi). These beautiful pseudocarps grow with a hole through the center, making them ready-made for stringing. UM design student Keesa Johnson Muhammad started our first crop, growing these from seeds, tracking water use, light needs and other factors. The high school interns took the next step. Here you see them in the greenhouse with Olayami Dabls, the founder and curator of MBAD African Bead Museum:
Finally we should note the work from the terrific teams of UM students in our Stamps class “Design for Generative Justice“, who created the grow boxes in the background above, and those in Engineering 450, who carried out a thermal and mechanical stress analysis in this report, examining how to keep our plants warm and safe in Michigan winters.