Have zoos had their day?

Sep 29, 2019 | News

By Oliver Wainwright – The Guardian

The architecture of zoos has come a long way from its barbaric beginnings. But, says our critic, not even mirrored pods and sci-fi islands can shake the feeling that these are relics from a bygone age

Monkeys swinging through assault courses, tigers prowling along caged walkways in the sky, polar bears taking centre stage in a giant copy of a Yukon harbour as crowds look on from a simulated boat deck – the architecture of zoos seems to have come a long way since the king of England first locked a bunch of lions in the Tower of London and charged the public a few hand-hammered pennies to see them. But has it left the 13th century far enough behind?

The Tower of London’s grim menagerie, which entertained paying punters for an astonishing 600 years, came into being after Henry III received three lions as a gift from the Holy Roman Emperor in 1235. They were meant to be a living embodiment of the royal arms of England, and the tower seemed a suitably fortified place to put them. Over the years, the royal collection grew to include elephants, rhinos, hyenas and a polar bear from Norway that was kept on a leash so long that it could catch fish from the Thames. It lasted until the Zoological Society of London was established in 1826, and the animals moved to the slightly more humane surrounds of London zoo in Regent’s Park.

With the birth of the modern zoo came the dawn of zoo architecture, spawning a peculiar kind of building that had to combine the roles of prison, theatre and museum. Over the years, there have been elaborate Sumatran temples for tigers, aviaries for exotic birds with all-but-invisible nets, and a range of equally eye-catching attempts to break down the barrier between human and animal. It’s a rich, strange history that has gone mostly undocumented – until now.

Cold comforts … visitors and bear at Hanover zoo’s Yukon Bay zone.

“I was amazed by how little literature and discussion there has been,” says Natascha Meuser, author of a weighty new tome, Zoo Buildings: Construction and Design Manual. Meuser, an architect and professor, aims to redress this balance and provide guidance for future zoos. She began researching the topic a decade ago, when a toy manufacturer asked her to design some typical zoo structures to go with its animal figures, a task less straightforward than she imagined.

“There wasn’t a simple answer,” she says. “But I became fascinated by how the architecture of zoos reflected man’s changing relationship with animals: going from a sense of exoticism and wonder, to better hygiene and animal welfare, to the idea that the architecture should disappear altogether.”

Her book traces the origins of the zoo, from the villas of Roman senators, whose copious estates featured banqueting pavilions where guests could dine in safety while surrounded by wild beasts, to the bear pits and stag trenches of the middle ages, to the lavish royal menageries of the baroque era. None surpassed Louis XIV’s at Versailles, designed as a radial complex of enclosures with the king’s pavilion at the centre, reflecting his notion of himself as master of the natural world.

Tiger overhead … Philadelphia zoo’s Big Cat Crossing.
 Tiger overhead … Philadelphia zoo’s Big Cat Crossing. Photograph: National Geographic Image Collection/Alamy

The focus shifted from entertainment to scientific study in the 19th century, with the emergence of zoological gardens in Europe. Creatures were housed in exotically styled pavilions, in the manner of a world’s fair, cementing the zoo as part of the colonial project – often complete with indigenous humans transported from their homelands to be displayed alongside the animals.

Berlin took things to a different level: its zoo was transformed into an architectural theme park, with elephants housed in a Hindu temple, antelopes in a Moorish palace and ostriches reached through a momentous Egyptian portal, every detail conceived as part of the total work of art. As Ludwig Heck, the zoo’s pro-Nazi director, put it: “Nothing is so negligible that it can’t be artistically transformed.” This thought extended to the thatched-roof huts of his barbaric human enclosures.

A backlash against themed pavilions led to a more naturalistic approach, switching the focus from anatomical spectacle to natural behaviour. The wild animal trader and circus impresario Carl Hagenbeck emerges as the godfather of the modern zoo, the first to propose enclosures without bars, realising his “panorama zoo” concept in Stellingen, near Hamburg, in 1907. He conducted tests on exactly how high each predator could jump (by tying a stuffed pigeon to a branch three metres up) and displayed them accordingly.

Without bars … Carl Hagenbeck’s Hamburg ‘panorama zoo’, c 1920.
 Without bars … Carl Hagenbeck’s Hamburg ‘panorama zoo’, c 1920. Photograph: ullstein bild via Getty Images

His zoo involved supposedly natural landscapes, separated from visitors by sunken trenches, moats and landscaped berms. The viewer assumed the role of Adam in the Garden of Eden, with mouflon and ibexes on artificial mountains, steppe animals on wide open ranges, and big cats in ravines without bars. An enthusiastic Thomas Edison visited in 1911. “The animals are not in a cage,” wrote the scientist gleefully in the guestbook. “They are on a stage!”

Taking a similar approach, French zoologist Gustave Loisel proposed a plan for a zoo in 1908 in which visitors would be hidden beneath an enormous landscaped hill, with the animals roaming above. People would make their way through a network of tunnels inside his artificial mound, all the way into the most intimate parts of the enclosures, getting an up-close glimpse of the animals – who, in theory, would be unaware of the subterranean voyeurs. “Nothing has really changed in zoo architecture since then,” says Meuser. “The ultimate goal is still for the people to be invisible and the animals to have a sense of freedom.”

More than a century later, Danish architect Bjarke Ingels recycled Loisel’s proposal, creating a grand plan for a “Zootopia” in Jutland. Unveiled in 2014 with characteristic chutzpah, the proposal was presented as a radical new zoo concept, where the animals would roam free and humans would be swept beneath a landscaped carpet. As the Guardian put it: “Cage-free zoo will put humans in captivity.” Visitors would be able to spy on creatures from hidden dens inside log piles, or trundle around enclosures in mirrored pods.

Chutzpah … a drawing for ‘Zootopia’ in Jutland, Denmark.
 Chutzpah … a drawing for ‘Zootopia’ in Jutland, Denmark. Photograph: Big

Ingels recently completed a £20m panda enclosure for Copenhagen zoo, based on the cliched form of a yin-yang symbol. Meuser thinks it leaves the pandas too exposed, with little chance of hiding, suggesting that Ingels’ vision of an animal-centric zoo revolution is still a long way off.

Meuser believes the recent emergence of “entertainment architecture” has been damaging, with zoos following attractions such as Disneyland by introducing of themed restaurants and shops to complement every enclosure, placing more emphasis on visitor experience than animal welfare. She quotes veteran US zoo director David Hancocks: “The main difference from a century ago is a new look, which is essentially superficial, and is typically a peculiar distortion of the natural world … a design vernacular best described as Tarzanesque. Modern zoos often resemble a Hollywood version of Africa on a B-movie set.”

Future zoo directors should have no qualms about demolishing these flimsy stage sets. The precious modernist architectural heritage that many zoos boast has proved to be an albatross around their necks. Berthold Lubetkin’s renowned 1934 penguin pool at London zoo has stood empty for 15 years, after the penguins contracted bumblefoot, a bacterial infection caused by walking on the concrete ramps.

A rendering of a zoo proposed for St Petersburg … a series of islands surrounded by water and dotted with biospheres.
 A proposal for St Petersburg … a series of islands surrounded by water and dotted with biospheres. Photograph: Artefactory ZSP

Similarly, the zoo’s brutalist elephant house, designed by Hugh Casson and Neville Conder in 1965 to evoke a herd of elephants gathered around a watering hole, was soon deemed too cramped for the majestic beasts. It’s one of 10 Grade-I and -II listed monuments the zoo is forced to work around, with little scope for adaptation.

Meuser says elephants pose one of the biggest dilemmas for modern zoos. Their immense size, and the fact they thrive in numbers and prefer to gather their own food, make them unhappy captives – yet they remain the biggest crowd-pullers. One baby elephant can double a zoo’s annual visitor numbers. London zoo (except for Whipsnade) San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago zoos, to name just a few, have all recently given up on keeping elephants.

The book’s survey of 50 international zoo buildings built in the last 20 years picks out Norman Foster’s overblown elephant house in Copenhagen as a place “where the animal competes for attention with the building in which it lives”. Meanwhile, Zurich’s great domed elephant enclosure, by Markus Schietsch, is highlighted for its more pachyderm-friendly approach. The creation includes more than 40 “fodder depots” hidden around the 11,000-sq-metre enclosure to encourage the elephants to forage, along with various pools where the creatures can wallow. There’s even a self-service shower to reduce contact with keepers.

Overblown … Norman Foster’s elephant enclosure in Copenhagen zoo.
 Overblown … Norman Foster’s elephant enclosure in Copenhagen zoo. Photograph: Natascha Meuser

While the book is full of such best-practice models, even the boldest proposals – like the series of islands, each housing creatures from a different continent, surrounded by water and dotted with biospheres imagined for St Petersburg – feel like strange anachronisms, curious relics from a bygone age. As Hancocks has pointed out, zoos’ claims of existing for conservation and education are questionable: the main priority is still the display of charismatic “megafauna” for visitors to gawp at. A growing awareness of captivity-related problems – including malnutrition, repetitive activity “zoochosis” and even cannibalism – has caused a number of zoos around the world to close. It might not be too long before Meuser’s thought-provoking guide finds itself in the history section.


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