Everyone knows Seattle is a hub for coffee and technology, but I was surprised to learn that we occupy a very specific niche in the architectural world: zoo architecture.
“It’s the epicenter of zoo design all over the world,” said Becca Hanson, principal at Studio Hanson|Roberts, a design firm specializing in zoos and aquariums.
“Seven firms sitting here in the Seattle region,” she said. “Now that’s just crazy. A lot of us live on Bainbridge Island. Go figure!”
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She says Seattle gained notoriety in the 1970s, when a local firm called Jones & Jones presented a master plan for Woodland Park Zoo like no one had ever seen. This was a zoo upgrade, since Seattle’s zoo originally opened in 1898.
“It was caging until then; bars or concrete walls or moats,” Hanson said. “Nobody really understood how you really kept animals. So Seattle came out with a master plan that built upon the ecology movement. So Jones & Jones worked with an ecologist and a landscape architect. Bars and caging went away and soft surfaces, natural surfaces, began to replace that. People and animals were placed in the same landscape so there’s the illusion of being on an equal footing with the animals. So it was an attempt to begin to understand what animals needed and how people could have a more direct relationship with animals. So it was really a phenomenal master plan at the time.”
That plan put Seattle on the map. New firms opened and people still move to the city to design zoos around the globe. That plan also changed the job description. Zoo design was no longer only about design; you also need a deep understanding of the natural habitats of these animals.
Joyce Lee is a senior architect at Seattle zoo design firm PJA. Her firm worked on a project that made an animal feel very comfortable in its new habitat.
“At Disney’s Animal Kingdom, by having this big habitat and a big pool, for the first time they were able to get the hippos to do a natural water birth in the exhibit,” Lee said.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom also started a newish trend: the animal hotel.
“So the visitors, when they’re staying in their room, they can actually view the animals right there,” said Lee, whose boss worked on the project. “Or when they’re hanging out in the lobby or the restaurant, they can see the animals right in front of them. The idea of bringing the animals to your room became really popular and now it is a big trend in China where they are able to get a lot of land to be able to start developing these parks from scratch.”
While no new zoos are being built in the United States — they’re only being updated — they are popping up all over China, a sign of their new wealth and symbol of prosperity.
“In the US you were not a civilized city unless you had an art museum and an opera and a zoo,” said Hanson. “The Chinese look at us and go, wow, look at that! Zoos! It’s a statement that we’ve arrived.”
Whether or not animals even belong in zoos is debatable, but Hanson does believe in them. But she doesn’t always agree with a zoo’s idea for an exhibit, or the conditions in which they keep their animals. So she uses cost and space as vehicles to sway their opinions.
“The thing that we can do, which I was told a long time ago by the then curator of animals at the San Francisco Zoo, when they wanted to bring back elephants to the San Francisco Zoo and they didn’t have enough room,” Hanson said. “I was getting outraged by it and he put his hand on my arm and said, ‘Becca, just show them what it will take.’ So while you may not be able to talk people into or out of something, you can show them a range of what it will take that will try to future proof them from public opinion, health and welfare of the animals. Even the ability of plants to grow and create a great exhibit. So that’s really what we try and do is try to maintain that trust, show them what it’s going to take.”
In order to give animals the amount of space they need, they may not always be easily visible to visitors. That’s where technology comes in.
“People generally think that you have to be able to see the lion right up close,” Hanson said. “But being able to hear a lion up close? So if the lion is sleeping, a bunch of lions piled up on top of each other, and you have a microphone aimed at them and you can hear them snoring. I mean, how cool is that?”