A Quick Lesson in Zoo Design History

Over time, zoos’ physical forms have been a direct reflection of our society’s values and understanding of science. It is important to understand where we’ve been in order to move forward, and its is also important for visitors to the older zoos to understand why certain buildings and exhibits are the way they are (as we know, zoos usually do not have an abundance of money, and struggle to keep their physical state up with the trends).

Zoos, in the form we know them now, have been in existence since the mid-18th century. Prior to this, private collections existed throughout the world as far back, it is believed, to Mesopotamian times. Romans kept animals, of course, for sport, but would display the animals in a zoo-like manner, prior to their being released to their deaths in the Coliseum. But we’ll focus on the mid-19th century forward.

We can easily divide the eras in zoo design into three general categories:

  1. Zoos as Jails (mid 19th to late 19th century)
  2. Zoos as Art Galleries OR the Modernist Movement (early to mid 20th century)
  3. Zoos as Conservation and Education Facilities

Zoos as Jails

This was the Age of Enlightenment and the Romantic Age, where beauty was of the upmost value and our understanding of the natural world was blossoming into a science.  Hard science in this time was all about classification and comparison.  Linneaus and Darwin were the scientific stars.  The earliest official zoos began during this period, with the London Zoo in 1828 and Philadelphia Zoo in 1874.  The early zoos were based on the mission of science for science’s sake, but also were places for socializing.

As such, a balance between beauty and classification was struck.  The zoos of this time were laid out by taxonomic families, and the term “House” came into being, as in Cat House, Bird House, etc.  The architectural style was over the top beautiful.  Highly ornate bird cages and buildings themed in the most dramatic fashion were everywhere.  But, cages were small, animals were short lived, and people enjoyed the animals as beautiful objects rather than living beings.

Zoos as Art Galleries OR the Modernist Movement

During this time, the world was experiencing several wars.  The study of nature became much less important, but Romanticism still existed.  Science progressed into problem solving, and medical advances were abundant.  Vaccinations became prevalent and the idea of killing germs to increase health and extend life expectancy came into being.

During this time, zoos held a similar value as art galleries, and the exhibits became mini-paintings and sculptures.  In the Romantic movement, a proper landscape exists with a foreground, mid-ground, and background.  Carl Hagenbeck became the first-ever to apply this theory to zoo design resulting in the birth of the barless (or ‘moated’) exhibit.  His motivation was more about creating a living Romantic landscape, like the famous painters of his time, than to recreate nature for moral sensitivities.  This style started to  catch on in zoos, but generally became popular much later.

At the same time, the modernist movement was catching fire.  Modernism requires that form follow function.  This belief along with the advances in medicine and desire for sterilization, created zoo exhibits that were easily hosed down and cleaned regularly.  This meant concrete everywhere.  Additionally, the Modernist Art scene infiltrated zoo design, and the hard, simple lines for which modernist style is famous, reigned supreme.  The result was exhibits that look more like sculpture than habitat.

With both the Romanticism and Modernist styles abounding in this time period, zoo design was more about creating an art gallery than a responsible home for animals.  Interestingly, due to the increased attention to health, captive animals’ life expectancies did increase almost to today’s levels.  The only thing missing was attention to the animals’ mental health.

Zoos as Conservation and Education Facilities

Since the mid-20th century, our society has developed a strong sense of environmental awareness and human rights ethics, which eventually gave way to animal rights as well.  In 1950, Hediger wrote “Wild Animals in Captivity” which opened people’s eyes to the idea of husbandry practices and exhibit design based on an animal’s natural history.  What a novel approach!  With the advances in healthcare (which overlaps into this era), animals in captivity began to be treated for physical as well as mental health.

During the 1970s, a group of folks at the Woodland Park Zoo (including two young designers from Jones and Jones Architects) decided to resurrect Hagenbeck’s ideas from long ago–and to advance them.

Instead of creating a living painting, they wanted to put the visitor into the habitat…Immerse them in the painting.  And, instead of creating a visually exciting statement only, they decided to re-create the habitat in the which the animal was naturally seen.  All of these things were incorporated into the gorilla exhibit at Woodland Park Zoo, and, thus, landscape immersion was born.

Since then, the idea of landscape immersion has caught on like wildfire, and today, is the standard of responsible zoo design.  Understanding the past, I have to wonder where we are headed next…A topic for future discussion.

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13 thoughts on “A Quick Lesson in Zoo Design History

  1. Very interesting and concise recap of zoo history. While zoos were not animal friendly in the begining, I do wonder if people were more amazed by being close to wild and exotic animals. For most of us now, it’s so easy to go to a zoo (and for some of us, great zoos for free!). Sometimes I think people take that for granted now, whereas in that time, it would be totally odd to see a tiger in the middle of St. Louis. But that’s what we have you for! Creating a new sense of amazement!

  2. Great thought, April! I’ve never considered this. Actually, we tend to think in opposing terms, saying nature was all around us in those days so the need for zoos was less. But, when we say nature, we dont mean exotics, and certainly, people in the 1800s would never have seen a tiger live, except at the zoo. We serve to inspire awe and create connections now, but were we just as successful then, despite the horrible animal conditions? Also, people today are inundated with methods of seeing animals, other than live–tv, internet, movies, etc. This means our challenge of creating awe and wonderment has actually increased, similarly to the advances in zoo design. Ironic.

  3. Adding my two cents: the earliest zoos were probably collections of oddities for the aristocracy to find amusement in. When zoos went public (starting with Schonbrun) it seems to have been about boasting rights for the powerful. The early menageries and zoos were perhaps no different than a fine collection of paintings. So, to April’s point, were zoos then places of amazement or simply curiosity (I suppose the question may be, how deeply were the visitors affected?)

    The notion of zoo-as-science-institution is commonly thought to have begun with the London Zoo in 1828. But it did not immediately revolutionize the zoo world (such as it was). Nineteenth-century zoos were as well known for their beautifully decorated grounds and grand restaurants (as well as lovely buildings)as for the animals. And the “general public” was not admitted. Only members, people of some standing, were allowed into the party.

    It is interesting to read early accounts by zoo directors, such as Bartlett’s “Wild Animals in Captivity” and see the sense of “collecting rarities” that dominates (so much for creating connections). It all makes me wonder if those visitors to early zoos were amazed (as we know the term) or merely intrigued. In any event, the connection most likely created was one of possession. Even looking to what many consider the big revolution in zoo design, Carl Hagenbeck’s Tierpark, it made zoos look different, but did visitors feel differently about what they saw?

    I think it is with David Hancocks’ Grant Jones, etc. work in Seattle that the revolution in the expected perceptions of the visitor really began a new age of zoo design.

    And I agree with so much of what you have been writing, and Jon Coe and others have been urging, that zoo design needs another revolution.

  4. Enjoying this new resource and the conversations it is inspiring. Loved the early ’70s photo of David Hancocks! I mean the following in only the best way–as David has been an inspiration, mentor and friend for years–but you have to admit there is a rather uncanny resemblance to Austin Powers! Ahh the 70s!
    I agree with Rob Halpern that David’s work with Jones and Jones at Seattle represents one of the true turning points in the history of zoo design philosophy. Most of the previous natural habitat exhibit efforts came out of the same type of thinking that created the great natural history museum dioramas–beautiful nature recreations contained in a box and viewed from a comfortable exterior vantage point. The work of Hagenbeck, Grzimek at Frankfurt Zoo’s “Exotarium,” the early projects at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and Bill Conway’s first big projects at the Bronx (Aquatic Bird House, World of Darkness and World of Birds) all fall squarely in the “diorama” model. Landscape immersion was a definite leap forward from this approach. What’s next?

  5. Not exactly. Descriptions of some ancient animal collections talk about features clearly like modern zoo – attempts of immersion, invisible barriers, environmental enrichment. These ideas were discovered and rediscovered for centuries.

    Actually, some ancient monarchs kept animals semi-free on scale which modern zoos can dream on. Apparently, Montezuma had menagerie with huge walk-through bird hall.

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  8. Nice article but I’d like to raise one point: What exactly is wrong with a zoo as an art exhibition? I’ve been thinking about that topic a lot lately and reading up on it I’ve stumbled upon a most interesting interview with David Hancocks and your own critical thoughts on immersion zoos. It’s obvious that an animal should have enough space but isn’t the idea of its exhibit being close to nature always just human self-deceit? If the stones of the polar bears’ exhibit you posted looked less like concrete and more like actual stones, would the polar bear really be fooled to think he’s not in captivity? Would it matter for him at all? I just wonder: isn’t a zoo that is honest about being a zoo, a place that is not nature but man-made, better than a zoo that pretends to be nature when it obviously isn’t?

    • Great comments! I’m not sure I was saying exhibiting animals in the context of art is a bad idea… In the context of defining a period of zoo history, these zoos were all about housing ‘artifacts’ rather than creating an experience in which visitors build engagement with the animals. I absolutely believe we could create an engaging, emotional and inspiring exhibit all about animals as art. However, historically, we have not. Also, it should be noted, an immersive experience is all about the visitor, and probably one 2% about the animal. As long as we are providing for the health and mental stimulation of the animal, it could look like anything. So, you are correct, we’re not ‘fooling’ an animal at all. How we’re fooling are the visitors. The movement towards a natural experience both makes the guests feel better about their zoo experience AND serves to teach in a contextual sense. We are highly visual learners, and setting is a huge cue as to what we should be taking away from an exhibit. Creating a modernist landscape and plopping an animal on top of it neither addresses the animals needs nor the needs of the guests.

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