The Elephant in the Room

Zoos were once full of compelling architecture. What happened?

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At the London Zoo, both!
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When the Bronx Zoo recently called lights out on the World of Darkness, I was disappointed. That’s not to say I was surprised: It’s news to nobody that the Bronx — like almost every other zoo, aquarium, museum, college, industry, company, household, individual — isn’t exactly flush right now, and something had to give. But though the loss of the nocturnal animals is a significant one, the exhibit’s closing was noteworthy for another reason. When it comes to zoo buildings, the World of Darkness is one of the most fascinating.

The World of Darkness was built in 1969. It has no windows, and from above looks like a giant letter C; the exterior is made up of tall, narrow gray stone panels of varying heights, which pitch inward. Unlike a lot of the other things you find in zoos, there’s nothing goofy or frenetic about it. It is not austere or staid or “classic” in any historic way. You would actually never expect to stumble upon a building like the World of Darkness in a zoo. It’s the kind of structure you’d expect to find in a zoo on, say, the Krypton of 1978’s Superman. But this element of surprise is exactly what makes the building so compelling, its closing a loss. 

As a field, the architecture of zoos is a funny thing. The difficulty in distinguishing it from the design of individual animal enclosures lies in the fact that each impacts the other in almost every case. Structures like the World of Darkness — whose exterior design influences the shape of its interior but not the way its animals are displayed — are rare. Zoo buildings instead usually reflect a negotiation between prevailing notions of an animal’s best interests, and the desire to frame visitors’ experience of looking at those animals in a way that they consider noteworthy. More simply, it’s a negotiation between what’s designed for animals, and what’s designed for humans.

You can usually tell which is winning by where and when you stand in the history of the zoo. European zoos of the late 19th and early 20th centuries incorporated the visual cultures of their animals’ native homes into ornate buildings — reflections of their nations’ colonial aspirations. The Berlin Zoo’s ostrich house resembled an Egyptian temple, with large columns flanking the entrance and scenes of ostrich hunts decorating the exterior. Berlin’s elephant enclosure was built in the spirit of a Hindu temple; the home for its giraffes adopted an Islamic architectural style. Zoos in Cologne, Lisbon, Antwerp, and Budapest, among others, created similar exhibits. These zoos were no home for subtlety: The animals they contained were exotic to most visitors; the buildings that did the containing reinforced the sensation.

You can find similar nods to foreign cultures in some U.S. zoos. The Cincinnati Zoo’s Taj Mahal-like elephant house, for example, and its pagoda-like Passenger Pigeon Memorial Hut are both National Historic landmarks. In Animal Attractions: Nature on Display in American Zoos, historian Elizabeth Hanson compares the style of the National Zoo’s Reptile House to that of northern Italy’s Romanesque cathedrals — an appropriation that gave the building more than just an appealing look. Hanson writes:

This style enabled [architect Albert Harris] to embellish the building with animal sculpture analogous to religious iconography. The columns were supported on the backs of two stylized turtles. In place of saints, crocodiles and toads serve as quoins and ornaments on the Reptile House. Massive carved bronze doors depicted reptiles and their prehistoric predecessors in place of biblical imagery…[T]he design of the National Zoo’s Reptile House suggests that it was intended, if not as a place for the worship of reptiles, at least as a place where they would receive deserved attention and respect.

Most American zoos, however, preferred their institutions to be — like parks, college campuses, and early suburbs — more a point of contact with and celebration of nature than a display of colonial might or religious allusion. These were green, leafy landscapes, but that is not to say they wanted for compelling architecture. The antelope, elephant, and carnivore houses at the Philadelphia Zoo were built as elaborate Victorian structures, its gatehouses designed by Frank Furness. The Bronx Zoo’s Astor Court is a collection of turn-of-the-century, Beaux-Arts animal houses surrounding manicured lawns and formal garden beds.


The Berlin Zoo’s Ostrich House.

The Philadelphia Zoo’s Elephant House.

These buildings were pleasing to visitors. To animals, not so much. Elephants tend to be indifferent toward Victorian architecture, lions and tigers to the Beaux-Arts style. The animals prefer, instead, more space than the buildings’ respective pens and cages allowed. As concern for the health and interests of animals grew over the course of the 20th century, the built landscape of zoos transformed in response. The institutions didn’t see complete overhauls — the battle between zoos and animal welfare groups over zoo elephants, including Philadelphia’s, is as strong as ever — but new construction and renovations to existing structures aimed to provide zoo’s collections with homes that more closely resembled what the animals would encounter in the wild.

The German animal dealer Carl Hagenbeck is credited with creating the first naturalistic live animal displays. At his private Tierpark, outside Hamburg, Hagenbeck used hidden moats to create panormas free of bars and fences, with multiple species appearing to live side-by-side. American zoos slowly adopted Hagenbeck’s idea. The exhibit it inspired is today a familiar sight: the animal inhabits an area of rocks and trees, and is separated from the public by a deep moat and a low wall. The display wowed turn-of-the-century Germans but it holds little surprise today. To be sure, there was the tiger that jumped the moat and wall of its enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo and killed a man on Christmas 2007, and the German woman who jumped into the polar bear exhibit at the Berlin Zoo earlier this year, and these are surprising animal encounters, to say the least. (Sometimes things happen the other way around. A baby lemur recently died at the Little Rock Zoo after falling into the water surrounding its exhibit. The scene was caught on film, but trust me: It is not easy to watch a baby lemur named Houdini struggling to keep its head above water while its parents panic on a rock above.) Death and danger, however, are not the kinds of excitement zoos want to provide.

In the 1970s, a desire for an even more true-to-life home for zoo animals and a more meaningful experience for visitors led to the current trend in zoo design: landscape immersion. Established at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo by the architectural firm Jones & Jones, the movement believes it’s not enough to allow animals to live out-of-doors. They should be in environments that resemble their native habitats, and grouped not with their types, but with their geographical and climactic peers. Visitors, as well, should feel that they’ve stepped into what was a previously inaccessible environment, with elements of the enclosure bleeding out into the public space. No more Bird House and Carnivore House and Reptile House, in other words. Indeed, as part of its renovations of Astor Court, the Bronx Zoo’s Lion House was not restored to two long rows of cat-filled cages, as it was built, but with an exhibit on the wildlife of Madagascar.

If this now sounds like more a discussion of animal enclosures than the architecture of zoos, well, that’s because the former has gradually overtaken the latter. Whenever possible, nature itself has become the guiding architectural style at most Western zoos. At one time, nobody minded acknowledging through overt architecture that animals were, indeed, being contained and displayed; now, the fewer signs of humans acting on animals, the better.

The assumption that a stimulating, pain-free zoo life requires a distancing from architecture designed for human visitors is an unfortunate one. To know why, it helps to consider the London Zoo. In the 1930s, a network of architects and designers in that city — among them faculty from the Bauhaus school who had fled Nazi Germany — began exploring the relationship between the natural world and the built environment. London Zoo administrators with an interest in modernist architecture hired the Tecton firm — led by that community’s Berthold Lubetkin — to design new structures for its gorillas and penguins. Tecton made the first a circular building with one half exposed to the elements: The gorillas occupied the enclosed half in winter; in summer, the entire structure rotated to give the animals full reign of the space. The shift was intended to provide the gorillas a stable temperature year-round, which the zoo’s anatomist had found helped the animals maintain normal menstral cycles, the building’s form following biological function. (In 1936, another Bauhaus architect, László Moholy-Nagy, filmed The New Architecture & the London Zoo — a tour of the institution and a demonstration of how the gorilla building worked. The film is viewable via the Moholy-Nagy Foundation).


   The London Zoo’s Penguin Pool.

London’s former penguin exhibit is even more noteworthy. A stark, white ellipses of concrete, its central pool is covered by two ramps that wove in slow arcs. The geometric basis of the design made a dramatic presentation of the animals; its color suggested health and hygiene. In “The Bauhaus of Nature” (Modernism/modernity), historian Peder Anker argues that the architecture intended his design to do more than delight:

Using penguins as an example, [Lubetkin] argued that “the most unlikely animals seem to thrive under what would seem the most unnatural conditions [provided that they] gain freedom from enemies, regular food and general hygiene.” The same would hold for workers and the poor who were in desperate need of being liberated from their “natural” condition of criminal and filthy slums…The health and welfare of people and animals were of equal concern, and the new architecture was to promote it.

If the zoo seems an unlikely site of socialist ideology that’s because it has come to be an unlikely home for any value but the conservation of wildlife; prevailing wisdom is that such a value isn’t best expressed by geometric forms or large gray slabs or Victorian gables, but by design that mimics wilderness.


The Berlin Zoo’s hippopotamus enclosure.

Yet there are exceptions: The Berlin Zoo’s hippopotamus enclosure, built in 1997, is a tree-ringed lake covered by a soaring glass dome with a diamond-patterned support structure that undulates. In 2006, the New York Aquarium (which, like the Bronx Zoo, is run by the umbrella Wildlife Conservation Society), launched a competition to redesign the exterior of its Coney Island home. The finalists included plans for a giant pink jellyfish with spiraling tendrils that create an open pavilion several stories high. The winning design reframes the structure with a long, tall fence that mimics the waves of sand and sea; a dune conceals an underground parking lot. (In 2008, the entire project was scrapped over costs and a decision to focus on interior renovations.) A Danish firm’s winning design for the new Denmark Aquarium set to open in Copenhagen in 2013 is a giant pinwheel. It is based on biological flows: “the whirl streams of the sea, shoals of fish, and swirling starlings turning the sky black,” according to the firm. Wilderness becomes, then, not the goal, but the inspiration.

The Berlin, Copenhagen, and New York designs suggest that compelling zoo architecture need not come at the expense of animals. This has value: Such variety reveals the complex relations we have with animals and, more broadly, nature. There is no one single way of looking at, experiencing, or using the natural world, but that’s what’s suggested by zoo design that frames every experience in identical ways. This is an easy out that — like the sameness of strip malls and highways and expanding exurbs — falsely assumes a simplicity of relationships and ideas and values. Contextualizing one of our most common intersections with the natural world through the World of Darkness or the Reptile House or a giant pink jellyfish makes the event not only more interesting, but also more honest. • 15 May 2009

Jesse Smith is a writer based in Philadelphia.
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