It's happening. Finally.
A breakthrough of sorts.
A big mental shift. A perception change among the "mainstream" aquarium world about natural, botanical-style aquariums! The idea that you can have a functional, ecologically sound aquarium which looks fundamentally different than the ones we've been accustomed to for generations.
Now, look, we've been talking about "functional aesthetics" for more than 6 years. At times, it's seemed like perhaps the concept was a bit too esoteric to catch on; let alone achieve mainstream aquarium hobby recognition. It's a radical departure from other approaches and methods which have been preferred for decades.
It had to happen eventually. And it did. A pure botanical-style aquarium, entered in a major aquascaping competition placed extremely high! Our friend Alex Franqui ('aquascape_af" on Instagram) entered his magnificent tank and placed 3rd in the "Biotope" category!
This is a BIG deal.
Well, think about it...we have an aquarium which was set up and run "botanical-style" (ie; utilizing botanicals to create the ecology of the aquarium in a "function first" approach) by a hobbyist who was fully mentally invested in the philosophy behind the approach. This tank was not created to just capture a "look" to win a contest.
It was conceived and created from the ground up to embrace natural processes as the "operating system" of the aquarium. Yes, great thought was put into the layout, fish population, and the materials chosen. However, the biggest consideration was to recreate, on a functional level, the "igapo" habitat from which Alex's chosen fishes come.
And recreate, he did!
This is an aquarium that makes absolutely no apologies about the biofilms, fungal growth, decomposition, that are found in the system. In fact, those things are practically the whole point of the tank. They are what makes it so incredible. To his great credit, Alex didn't shy away from this at all in his contest entry description. In fact, he did what all botanical-style aquarium lovers do- he celebrated them as fantastic creations of Nature; vital components of a remarkable aquarium.
And somehow, it touched the judges.
It moved them to evaluate the aquarium based on what it does and is, rather than strictly on some rigid aquascaping philosophy. Now, a third place finish is remarkable, given such a stiff competition. However, I personally feel that Alex's tank deserved to win the whole thing. Not JUST because I like the dude and think his tank is epic- but because it represents a profound departure from the typical contest entries. It literally is conceived and operated in a philosophically different manner than any other tank that was entered.
THAT deserves tremendous adulation, IMHO! As does the courage of the judges to score this tank so highly.
Full disclosure: I was actually asked to be a judge in this contest category last year, and I famously declined, my reasons outlined in this blog from last October. I would have made a shitty judge. I suppose I have been sour on contests all along because I feel that the idea of setting up a tank just to enter some contest feels somehow "impure" and "artificial", and that the typical evaluation criteria are either too rigid, or just emphasizing the wrong things.
And I still sort of feel that way, although I admit to feeling a lot better about contests after Alex's high placing. Yeah, it's not about ME, though. The point is, it's neat to see that there might even be a bit of mental shifting going on in the judges' heads! Perhaps, maybe, the work of the botanical-style community is trickling into the general consciousness of the aquarium hobby. A contest entry which places high like this- even if evaluated on what I'd consider some of the "wrong" criteria- is a profound reflection of this.
Shit, I'll call it what it is: A breakthrough.
A lot of neat "buzz" has ensued about this tank on social and in hobby discussions. No doubt, it will be picked apart, analyzed, and otherwise studied by all sorts of contest-aspiring hobbyists for months to come. Perhaps it will inspire others who are "all in" on botanical-style tanks to make the leap and enter their tanks in a future competition.
Perhaps it will be the start of something significant. Maybe one day there will be a "Botanical-Style Aquairum" sub-category in contests. One which evaluates these systems by relevant criteria, much the way planted tanks are evaluated. Perhaps one which looks at natural aquatic habitats- not other peoples' tanks- as the foundation for a set of judging criteria.
We'll see, right?
I mean, I shouldn't get too excited about this.
Well, maybe I should.
I mean, it's a big deal to see the mental shifts and philosophical transformations which we've talked about for years here starting to seep into the consciousness of the aquarium hobby. It's bigger than just one tank, one entry, or one contest. It's bigger even than the idea of a contest. It's about finally accepting Nature in Her unedited form. Seeing the beauty in ALL of it.
And, perhaps, applying it to our aquarium work.
Yeah, contest are probably the hobby's biggest and most visible platform for inspirational work. I think I have been railing on them for the right reasons; however, I have to also accept the good that they can do for the hobby and our movement. This "contest thing" has been dogging me for years. Sure, we've been talking about doing our own dedicated contest since 2017- we called it the "Igapo Challenge" at the time- and I still haven't gotten my head around the idea! Here's an excerpt from a 2019 blog in which I give some of the reasons for my conundrum:
"…I want to foster an aquarium movement. The brand is already doing its thing, and if people want to continue to support us- well, I'm honored. We promote it through lots of other means, as you're aware (I mean- I HOPE that you are, lol)
I think now, thanks in a large part to our rapidly growing global community, this type of approach to aquascpaing/aquarium keeping is now achieving a "scale" that is well beyond just Tannin Aquatics (at least, I hope it is). However, I think that the the most important thing we can do in this contest is inspire people to learn more about the wild habitats we seek to replicate-in form and function- and to give the concept a shot in their own aquarium. That's also why I don't intend to have this be judged based on some adherence to a specific "style" or "look."
As we've said many times- Nature doesn't adhere to our expectations of style, nor should we place expectations on her. Rather, I believe the criteria should be largely based upon how closely the aquarium represents a natural habitat in look AND function. Any talented 'scaper can, if he/she tries, recreate the "look" of a natural aquatic system...but to couple it with a functioning aquarium is a different game entirely. Again, it's about what we call "functional aesthetics..." It looks like Nature because, well- it functions like Nature to some extent. That's why those "diorama" scapes will simple not even be considered for entry.
I'd happily select a winner from a half dozen muddy-bottom-turbid water- decomposing-leaf-littered flooded forest representations over any "world class" "high concept" perfectly manicured ultra-stylish "fantasy forest" setup any day of the week. Not even close."
Oh, the attitude, huh?
Yeah, the idea of a contest is challenging to me. But the idea of sharing, inspiring, and educating is awesome. And, hell, if it takes a contest to get the message across; well, so be it, right?
Maybe we WILL do that contest soon? Maybe the time is right for a botanical-style aquarium contest? Let me know.
Anyways, back to Alex and his remarkable, transformational finish.
There's more to it than just the cool tank he did. Really!
It's about the guy and his orientation. His background. His hobby philosophy.
Alex is an aquascaper with a sort of "pedigree", if you will. A "classical" planted tank 'scaper -a designer- who's style and philosophy has evolved over the years. And that's huge. I remember when he was starting this tank, and he was experiencing the usual trials and tribulations of a new botanical-style aquarium...and these things never phased Alex. He knew what he was getting into. He realized that this aquarium would be unlike any other he had ever created- both in terms of its aesthetics and function.
And not only did he persevere- he embraced it all. The biofilms, the decomposition...All of it. He understood that these are natural occurrences and that they arise as a result of a confluence of factors...and that they are NOT harmful in the context of the overall aquatic ecosystem. Alex educated himself about the ecological ramifications and benefits of what he was seeing, and the way the aquarium functioned and looked much like the natural ecological niche it was modeled after.
He gets it.
Now, sure-the idea of turning to Nature for inspiration is as old as aquarium keeping itself; however, in recent years, we seem to have moved a bit away from that, drawing more inspiration from other aquarist's work. Again, this is wonderful, and a great thing- symbolic of the interconnected global hobby we're in. However, with so much emphasis on replicating the fine work of other hobbyists, it's nice to gain a fresh perspective from Nature once in a while, incorporating it into our "toolbox" of ideas- in our own way, to create something that we enjoy-something that is truly unique, and which gives us a real "slice of the bottom" as well.
This made Alex's high placement in the contest even more satisfying!
The ideas are there- waiting for us to figure out how to turn into reality in our tanks. We just need to let go of the preconceptions and constraints which have held us back for so long.
The hobby is old. The natural world is older. And far more vast. And filled with inspiration for those who simply look for it. Your ideas for your next tank are as close as the world outside your door.
Take a step through it...open your eyes. And breath it in.
Nature IS the best designer.
But hobbyists like Alex- and I'm sure a lot of YOU- are getting pretty damn close.
Congrats, Alex. Well done. You wanted to create a cool tank- and you may have just changed the aquarium world in the process.
And to all of us in this hobby specialty of "twigs/nuts/leaves"- a hearty pat on the dorsal side. Keep doing what you do- blurring the lines between Nature and the aquarium...and yeah, making these mental shifts.
Stay bold. Stay proud. Stay thoughtful. Stay patient. Stay diligent. Stay creative...
And Stay Wet.
You deserve it.