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:
- Zoos as Jails (mid 19th to late 19th century)
- Zoos as Art Galleries OR the Modernist Movement (early to mid 20th century)
- 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.