Reading 30

The following passage is taken from an article entitled “The Elephant in the Room” by Jesse Smith (© 2009 The Smart Set).

Zoo Architecture

  1. When the Bronx Zoo recently
  2. called lights out on the World
  3. of Darkness, I was
  4. disappointed. That’s not to say
  5. I was surprised: It’s news to
  6. nobody that the Bronx isn’t
  7. exactly flush right now, and
  8. something had to give. But
  9. though the loss of the
  10. nocturnal animals is a
  11. significant one, the exhibit’s
  12. closing was noteworthy for
  13. another reason. When it
  14. comes to zoo buildings, the
  15. World of Darkness is one of
  16. the most fascinating.
  17. The World of Darkness was
  18. built in 1969. It has no
  19. windows, and from above
  20. looks like a giant letter C;
  21. the exterior is made up of tall,
  22. narrow gray stone panels of
  23. varying heights, which pitch
  24. inward. Unlike a lot of the
  25. other things you find in zoos,
  26. there’s nothing goofy or
  27. frenetic about it. It is not
  28. austere or staid or “classic” in
  29. any historic way. You would
  30. actually never expect to
  31. stumble upon a building like
  32. the World of Darkness in a
  33. zoo. It’s the kind of structure
  34. you’d expect to find in a zoo
  35. on, say, the Krypton of
  36. 1978’s Superman. But this
  37. element of surprise is exactly
  38. what makes the building so
  39. compelling, its closing a loss.
  40. As a field, the architecture of
  41. zoos is a funny thing. The
  42. difficulty in distinguishing it
  43. from the design of individual
  44. animal enclosures lies in the
  45. fact that each impacts the
  46. other in almost every case.
  47. Structures like the World of
  48. Darkness — whose exterior
  49. design influences the shape
  50. of its interior but not the way
  51. its animals are displayed —
  52. are rare. Zoo buildings instead
  53. usually reflect a negotiation
  54. between prevailing notions of
  55. an animal’s best interests, and
  56. the desire to frame visitors’
  57. experience of looking at those
  58. animals in a way that they
  59. consider noteworthy. More
  60. simply, it’s a negotiation
  61. between what’s designed for
  62. animals, and what’s designed
  63. for humans.
  64. You can usually tell which is
  65. winning by where and when
  66. you stand in the history of the
  67. zoo. European zoos of the late
  68. 19th and early 20th centuries
  69. incorporated the visual
  70. cultures of their animals’
  71. native homes into ornate
  72. buildings — reflections of their
  73. nations’ colonial aspirations.
  74. The Berlin Zoo’s ostrich house
  75. resembled an Egyptian temple,
  76. with large columns flanking
  77. the entrance and scenes of
  78. ostrich hunts decorating the
  79. exterior. Berlin’s elephant
  80. enclosure was built in the
  81. spirit of a Hindu temple; the
  82. home for its giraffes adopted
  83. an Islamic architectural style.
  84. Zoos in Cologne, Lisbon,
  85. Antwerp, and Budapest,
  86. among others, created similar
  87. exhibits. These zoos were no
  88. home for subtlety: The
  89. animals they contained were
  90. exotic to most visitors; the
  91. buildings that did the
  92. containing reinforced the
  93. sensation.
  94. You can find similar nods to
  95. foreign cultures in some U.S.
  96. zoos. The Cincinnati Zoo’s Taj
  97. Mahal-like elephant house, for
  98. example, and its pagoda-like
  99. Passenger Pigeon Memorial
  100. Hut are both National Historic
  101. landmarks. In Animal
  102. Attractions: Nature on Display
  103. in American Zoos, historian
  104. Elizabeth Hanson compares
  105. the style of the National Zoo’s
  106. Reptile House to that of
  107. northern Italy’s Romanesque
  108. cathedrals — an
  109. appropriation that gave the
  110. building more than just an
  111. appealing look.
  112. Most American zoos, however,
  113. preferred their institutions to
  114. be more a point of contact
  115. with and celebration of nature
  116. than a display of colonial
  117. might or religious allusion.
  118. These were green, leafy
  119. landscapes, but that is not to
  120. say they wanted for compelling
  121. architecture. The antelope,
  122. elephant, and carnivore houses
  123. at the Philadelphia Zoo were
  124. built as elaborate Victorian
  125. structures, its gatehouses
  126. designed by Frank Furness.
  127. The Bronx Zoo’s Astor Court
  128. is a collection of turn-of-the-
  129. century, Beaux-Arts animal
  130. houses surrounding manicured
  131. lawns and formal garden beds.
  132. These buildings were pleasing
  133. to visitors. To animals, not so
  134. much. Elephants tend to be
  135. indifferent toward Victorian
  136. architecture, lions and tigers
  137. to the Beaux-Arts style. The
  138. animals prefer, instead, more
  139. space than the buildings’
  140. respective pens and cages
  141. allowed. As concern for the
  142. health and interests of
  143. animals grew over the course
  144. of the 20th century, the built
  145. landscape of zoos transformed
  146. in response. The institutions
  147. didn’t see complete overhauls
  148. but new construction and
  149. renovations to existing
  150. structures aimed to provide
  151. zoo’s collections with homes
  152. that more closely resembled
  153. what the animals would
  154. encounter in the wild.