21 January 2019

From living trophy collections through museums with living exhibits to theme parks. An overview of the architectural history of the zoo.

By Natascha Meuser

The history of zoo architecture serves to illustrate the Western relationship between humans and animals. Christian values, scientific emancipation, and political power play a specific role here. The relationships of humans to architecture and as well as to animals changed, and so did the preconceptions of successful architecture. The notion of what is socially acceptable and therefore appropriate architecture for a zoological garden is therefore also subject to permanent change.

Thus the zoo developed from something akin to a living trophy collection to a museum with living exhibits, and eventually to a theme park with a moral mandate. To date, five generations can be identified that, from the perspective of building history, reflect the change in humans’ preconceptions of wild animals – from a pure display object to a sentient being with rights. The sequential stages in time reflect political, zoological and design aspects from the early 19th century to the present day.

Building in a colonial style

First signs of the beginning of zoo architecture as we know it today and an independenttypology can be found in the early 19th century. What began as a demonstration of political power gradually evolved, during the course of the Enlightenment and in the wake of the French Revolution, into a place of scientific epistemological interest. People engaged in close observation of the world around them – and, not least, the animals within it. Understanding them meant understanding creation and thus also God. In its structure, the zoo mimicked biology books: The animals were arranged in cages next to one another in order to permit direct comparison. In zoological gardens, architecture from the local cultural sphere was supplemented by buildings with an international feel.

Outer Perspektive Pachydermata House, Zoological Garden, Berlin, source: Deutsche Bauzeitung
Historical artificial rock formation at the polar sea panorama, Tierpark Hagenbeck, 1913, Quelle: Archive Tierpark Hagenbeck

Around 1900, Carl Hagenbeck’s panorama zoo emerged as the first impulse in zoo architecture to liberate the former animal houses from their dainty pavilion-like format and view them as a standalone architectural landscape. The animals were no longer separated from visitors, but rather freed from their cages and presented almost on a natural stage. But what gave rise to this idea? If we believe Hagenbeck, the intention was to demonstrate the animals’ resilience through an explicit rejection of architecture. The visitors, for their part, enjoyed an unbroken view of the animals.

Formalism and functionalism

From the beginning of the 20th century to the 1920s, zoo architecture was characterized by Hagenbeck’s idea of landscape dominating the architecture. During the 1930s, however, modern designs stemming from functionalism heralded a new era. Instead of zoos being landscaped, a formalistic architecture without exotic decoration was introduced. This third generation of zoo architecture was most strongly shaped by the designs of the architectural group Tecton. With the penguin pool at London Zoo, Berthold Lubetkin, the brains behind Tecton, created an icon of architectural modernism. 

Pinguine betrachten das Modell des Penguin Pool, Entwurf: Lubetkin Drake & Tecton, Foto: John Havinden (1933), Quelle: Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Photographs Collection
Lester E. Fisher, Great Ape House im Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago Architekten: Brenner Danforth Rockwell (1973), Quelle: Lincoln Park Zoo

As of the 1970s, it is possible to see a landscaping of architecture on the one hand and the downright housing of nature on the other. Architecture disappeared from the zoological park complex and with it the architects. It was from that point onwards that the zoo directors increasingly took charge of their design. However, only a few successful examples of architectural design emerged here. There was generally a lack of money and time to try out experimental constructions and engage in a lengthy design process.

The animals were no longer separated from visitors, but rather freed from their cages.

Natascha Meuser
JDS Architects, Dochodo Zoological Island, South Korea, 2009
Bjarke Ingels Group, Givskud Zoo, representation of the continents, Denmark

In the early 1990s many traditional zoological establishments began transforming into so-called adventure zoos, thus marking the start of a new movement in zoo planning. Now, thematization and storytelling dominate these “adventure zoos” as much as in amusement-and water parks. On the other hand, some iconic zoo architecture has been realized– including the 3,400-square-meter elephant house designed by Norman Foster at Copenhagen Zoo, and the 16,500-square-meter Gondwanaland, an enormous tropical house in the middle of Leipzig Zoo – which, for its part, draws attention away from the animals.

In the zoos of Western culture, the brutality of nature is merely depicted in socially acceptable snippets. The natural habitat of the species is only implied – as attempts to copy it are destined to fail. And yet zoos are the most important ambassadors for conveying the extreme fragility and the stricken state of our planet to the general public.

TN Plus / Beckmann-N’Thépé / Intarsia, St. Petersburg
Boltshauser Architekten AG, 1st place competition entry for the Oceanium at Zoo Basel, 2012
Gondwanaland, 2011, Leipzig, Architekten: Henchion + Reuter Architekten, Photo: Henry Pfeifer