I Left My Heart in ‘Heart of Africa’

Updated October 1, 2015:

I’m overjoyed to announce our project has received Top Honors in Exhibit Design from the AZA! I was lucky enough to watch CZA President and CEO accept the award at the annual awards luncheon at the National AZA Conference 2015 in Salt Lake City.  Absolutely one of the great moments of my life so far…

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It might surprise you to hear that I’ve been working at PGAV for 11 years now, and I’ve only seen a few projects that I worked on open.  That’s something you may not know about being a designer (it’s kind of the industry dirty little secret); many projects that you dedicate years of work to, get shelved.industry-secrets  Even with a high industry success rate, like what PGAV has, many projects disintegrate and disappear entirely.

What’s perhaps more interesting than that is that my role specifically at PGAV is generally focused on the largest scale planning—master plans for zoos and aquariums, conceptual storylines and site planning, exhibit programming and initial layout—which means my involvement in projects quickly tapers as more and more detail develops.  For example, although I understand how to put together a swing gate in a wood fence, there are highly talented architects in our office who more thoroughly understand the exact finish, gauge, hardware, species of wood, width of gaps, and hinge detailing, and draw them quicker and more efficiently than I.  These people pick up where I drop off, and they continue to see the project through to construction.  Because of this, I often am not involved as projects develop past initial or conceptual planning.  But, Columbus Zoo’s Heart of Africa is different.  My involvement in this project continued, to one extent or another, from the master plan development through construction documents.  This is truly the first project that I was so deeply involved in that actually made it to opening day.  And I’m excited.

Line to get into Zoo at 9:01 am.

Line to get into Zoo at 9:01 am.

I got to visit Heart of Africa (originally called ‘Safari Africa’) on opening weekend which happened to fall on Memorial Day.  My visit fortuitously coincided with what will likely be one of the biggest weekends the exhibit will ever see.  I was nervous about this, but happy to say, despite the massive crowds, the exhibit worked.  I even overheard probably the best compliment possible from a mom visiting a zoo: “That was so worth the crowd!” Amazing.

The savanna

The savanna

Let me tell you a little about the project.  It’s a 43-acre expansion of the original zoo onto land that was previously used for farming.  The expansion area, located to the northwest, provided an awkward connection point, and an even longer walk from the front door than already existed.  Because of this, the project includes a new tram system connecting guests from the front door of the zoo to the front door of the exhibit.

Entry gate to Heart of Africa

Entry gate to Heart of Africa

Guests arrive to Heart of Africa through a massive entry gate, demarking the outskirts of the modern day African village built up around the front gate to an East African National Park.  The village grew over time, as more and more tourists visited the Park, and its mixture of cultural influences are obvious in the architecture and murals found throughout.  Just inside the village fence, (thematically) travelers are encouraged to leave their camels for rest in the corral.  Hints of the villagers’ daily life dot the path into the heart of the village.  The village itself contains the restaurant (with views to both the lions and savanna, as well as the camel ride paths), snack stand, ticket and photo stand, retail shop, and amphitheater.  But the real attractions here are the lions and the view beyond—to the 8-acre savanna.

Camel yard...These are actually the ride camels relaxation digs.

Camel yard…These are actually the ride camels relaxation digs.

All of the conservation projects represented at Heart of Africa--all of which Columbus Zoo supports.

All of the conservation projects represented at Heart of Africa–all of which Columbus Zoo supports.

Props. Villagers have limited to access to clean water and regularly have to travel long distances to get some.

Props. Villagers have limited access to clean water and regularly have to travel long distances to get some.

Other means for the villagers to get water.

Other means for the villagers to get water.

Retail shop designed to mimic a modern day open market.

Retail shop designed to mimic a modern day open market.

The village plaza

The village plaza

The restaurant

The restaurant

Highly themed restaurant tracks conservation programs and Jack Hannas many trips to Africa.

Highly themed restaurant tracks conservation programs and Jack Hanna’s many trips to Africa.

The lion exhibit extends from the village around past the National Park entry gates.  Just within the entry gates, the Rangers’ work station and airplane hangar sit.  The lions often are found here, lounging in the shade which happens to be surrounded by windows.  You won’t get any closer than this.  In the hangar, a transport plane encourages lions and children to explore, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get an unexpected face-to-face.

The village school house serves as a small amphitheater. This is a reuse of an existing historical structure on-site.

The village school house serves as a small amphitheater. This is a reuse of an existing historical structure on-site.

Clever school house bulletin boards touches on some of the conservation programs CZA supports.

Clever school house bulletin boards touches on some of the conservation programs CZA supports.

The view of the lion habitat and across the savanna beyond from the village plaza.

The view of the lion habitat and across the savanna beyond from the village plaza.

The National Park Entry Gates

The National Park Entry Gates

The lions enjoy hanging out where everyone can see them.

The lions enjoy hanging out where everyone can see them.

The airplane in its hangar

The airplane in its hangar

Visitors can climb inside, and if the lions want to, they can stare each other down through the airplane windows.

Visitors can climb inside, and if the lions want to, they can stare each other down through the airplane windows.

Past the lions, the savanna unfolds fully.  In the middle of the savanna and closest to the guest path, the watering hole exhibit allows keepers to rotate education and exhibit animals throughout the day.  Currently, the rotation occurs just about hourly.  While I was there, a group of zebra and antelope inhabited the yard as I entered; on my exit, a flock of flamingos.  This really got people talking which, ultimately, is the whole purpose.

Watering hole, first thing: Zebras

Watering hole, first thing: Zebras

Watering hole later in the day: Flamingos

Watering hole later in the day: Flamingos

The watering hole is also where the cheetah run demonstration occurs, providing a wholly different experience than seen at other zoos.  This exhibit allows for a looping run, rather than just a straight run, and the keepers can easily change the run route to keep the exercise fun and enriching for the cats.

Guests lined up to see the Cheetah Run demo

Guests lined up to see the Cheetah Run demo

Male Cheetah running

Male Cheetah running

Female cheetahs and dog pals after their big run

Female cheetahs and dog pals after their big run

The cheetahs also have a permanent exhibit area highlighting the wonderful conservation program, Cheetah Conservation Fund, which the Zoo supports through funding.  The exhibit area is basically an outdoor yard for the cheetahs, who are all used in education programming around the country.  This means they have been hand-raised and bonded with keepers and litter mate Labradors to ensure they are tractable.

The cheetahs permanent home; Themed to Cheetah Conservation Fun headquarters.

The cheetahs permanent home; Themed to Cheetah Conservation Fund headquarters.

These Cheetahs enjoy public interaction.

These Cheetahs enjoy public interaction.

The savanna also includes a specialized giraffe feeding yard.  This area allows the keepers to keep track of which animals have participated in the timed feedings—meaning, everyone remains on their appropriate diet.  The feeding platform gets guests out into the savanna, providing an unimpeded view of the seemingly unending (meaning, no barriers anywhere!) savanna.  Even when feeding is not occurring, the platform is open for viewing, and guess what–the giraffes like to hang out right there for up-close views.

View from Giraffe yard.

View from Giraffe yard.

Giraffes munching when not being fed by the guests. Clever placement of feeder ensures the giraffe like to stay where the people are.

Giraffes munching when not being fed by the guests. Clever placement of feeder ensures the giraffe like to stay where the people are.

Past the giraffes is Jack Hanna’s tented camp.  Here you can explore a Jeep that has seen better days (as witnessed by the car parts nearby), and two tents filled with Jack’s supplies.  One tent and campsite has been overrun by vervet monkeys—an authentic African experience (for those of us who have been to Africa)!  The monkeys’ exhibit is filled with climbing structures and camping accoutrements.  Keepers are able to scatter treats as enrichment throughout the space to keep the critters active.  While I was visiting, the monkeys seemed to really enjoy sitting on the camp table and playing ‘paddy cake’ with the guests through the glass.

We worked hard to keep this stand of existing osage orange trees in the middle of the site.

We worked hard to keep this stand of existing osage orange trees in the middle of the site.

Weaver birds in the tree!

Weaver birds in the tree!

Vervets are entertained by guests.

Vervets are entertained by guests.

Climb into the Jeep.

Climb into the Jeep.

Overall, the exhibit has turned out just beautifully.  So many of the original intentions and ideas are spot on.  So much so, you can even compare the original renderings to site photos and clearly see how they align.  It’s not often this so cleanly occurs without significant changes.  It is a testament to the relationship between the Zoo and PGAV, and the Zoo’s clear vision, experience with large scale projects, and drive to achieve such a high level of success.  Well done, team!

Fun and informative signs found throughout.

Fun and informative signs found throughout.

Lovely touches like these hand painted shade cloth and simple graphic enhance the experience.

Lovely touches like these hand painted shade cloth and simple graphic enhance the experience.

Species ID signs are themed but consistent from species to species.

Species ID signs are themed but consistent from species to species.

Inside the seating area of the restaurant.

Inside the seating area of the restaurant.

View from the restaurant to the lions and savanna beyond.

View from the restaurant to the lions and savanna beyond.

View from the other seating area into the camel ride yard.

View from the other seating area into the camel ride yard.

Camel ride yard--not your typical camel ride.

Camel ride yard–not your typical camel ride.

Muraling around the exhibit enhance the messaging and experience.

Muraling around the exhibit enhance the messaging and experience.

Drums and musical instruments for kids to bang on serve as fun interactives as well as adding authentic sounds to the space.

Drums and musical instruments for kids to bang on serve as fun interactives as well as adding authentic sounds to the space.

Merchandising includes Fair Trade products made in Africa. I bought that giraffe.

Merchandising includes Fair Trade products made in Africa. I bought that giraffe.

More typical

More typical “zoo” merch was also customized and appropriate to the exhibit.

“Yall come back now” in Swahili.

One thought on “I Left My Heart in ‘Heart of Africa’

  1. Pingback: Columbus Zoo News - 2014 » Columbus Zoo and Aquarium - Page 10

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