Peter Blundell Jones on Proctor & Matthews’ Gorilla Kingdom, the pivotal new project at London Zoo.
Although world travel is commonplace and although we all share David Attenborough’s intimate moments with animals on television, there is still no substitute for seeing wild animals in the flesh and looking them in the eye. Alec Guinness used to visit London Zoo because he found in the animals’ moods, looks, and gestures suggestions for parts he might play. Yet we have come to feel increasingly guilty about depriving animals of their freedom and increasingly worried about the conditions in which they are kept, aware of their boredom and of their sometimes vain struggles to reproduce. On the positive side, as wild habitats have increasingly been destroyed, zoos have become refuges for the preservation of increasingly rare species, and the scientific study of their bodies and their behaviour helps us to understand and respect the living conditions of their wild cousins.
The conflict between scientific work and public spectacle has been present ever since London Zoo was founded by the Royal Zoological Society in 1828. From the moment it became public in 1847, the zoo charged for visits to meet its costs and now, on top of the hefty entrance fee, it hires out animal houses for private drinks parties in the evening. For the zoo architect, therefore, there has always been a direct contradiction between the need to allow animals some privacy and the need to let visitors see something for their money. To add to the difficulties there have also been continuous changes in attitude about the way animals are kept. Thus not only are there now no camels in Decimus Burton’s tiny original camel house, but sadly also no penguins in Berthold Lubetkin’s beautifully restored grade 1 listed penguin pool. The zoo’s 1934 gorilla house was also by Lubetkin and Tecton, their first building at Regent’s Park, an ingenious circular structure with a rotating weather screen which swung round to convert its main cage into an interior in winter. Lubetkin’s genius in his zoo buildings was to dramatise the spectacle of the animals with relatively abstract settings while providing a rich variety of safe viewing conditions. By modern standards, though, the gorilla house was far too small, and it was long ago superseded, replaced in the 1970s by the Sobell Pavilion for monkeys and apes, a series of pavilions with small courts placed near the zoo’s main entrance.
Proctor & Matthews’ Gorilla Kingdom has largely replaced this complex on the same site. After playing with and rejecting a concept for a biome, a greenhouse-like structure – the zoo and its architects decided to demolish most of the Sobell buildings in favour of some real open space for the gorillas. This consists of a large island with grass, hillocks, and trees surrounded by a broad moat two metres deep. The public is guided around this island from the west on a controlled walk, passing through other exhibits on the way. But the essential encounter is at the north-east corner of the island where people are separated from gorillas only by large 40mm thick glass panels as they pass along a roofed ‘boardwalk’. In the corner is the gorillas’ ‘day gym’, again fully glazed onto the public walk. Their sleeping quarters are enclosed and invisible to the public, set behind to the north. The animals come and go through a high-level glazed bridge. There are a number of sleeping cages and a series of remotely controllable doors, so the animals can be allowed to meet or be kept apart, and their relationships are monitored to prevent them harming one another. The island will eventually also be shared with colobus monkeys, which tend to stay in the trees and have their own approach bridge across the boardwalk, but the two species have to be introduced to each other gradually.
Proctor & Matthews has opted for an architecture of the route, concentrating on the experience of people rather than animals. The gravel path winds in from the west to meet the boardwalk at a bridge where water crosses to enter the moat. A high side wall to the left and a roof above provide enclosure, so one’s attention swings to the right and to the window onto the island, the glass wall and rhythmic clusters of bamboo columns. As the space becomes more enclosed and the roof projects further, the view of the island switches to the interior of the gym cage where gorillas are more likely to be found in bad weather. At the corner there is another threshold marked in the floor and ceiling, and the space unexpectedly opens up. Light breaks through between the roofs and the turn is well controlled, the expanding space allowing room to linger before one moves on southward and out. There are more views into the gym on the right, then again across to the island as one leaves. The architects’ strategy depended strongly on the character of the boardwalk and its section, cleverly contrived with materials intended to refer to the gorillas’ original Congo habitat. Apart from the truly structural bamboo columns, the floor of the boardwalk is made of ekki, an African hardwood reclaimed from old railway sleepers. More important for the visitor’s experience is the linear pattern painted on and cut into the plywood wall and ceiling panels. Bringing a varied and dappled light like a forest glade, it was directly inspired by Kuba fabrics, examples of which are hung above the glass walls on the island side. Whatever the original cultural meanings of the contrasted figures in the patterns – sometimes suggestive of bodies, sometimes of letters – Proctor & Matthews has made of them an arrestingly new kind of imagery. In a zoo overloaded with signs that jostle for attention, and in a mixed and complex building that quietly meets severe technical demands, the Kuba reference renders the experience of the boardwalk appropriately dominant. Crucially it reflects the architects’ skilled understanding of the necessary difference between frontstage and backstage.
Peter Blundell Jones is an architect and professor at Sheffield University; his books include monographs on Hugo Häring, Hans Scharoun and Gunnar Asplund.
Stephen Proctor writes:
The Gorilla Kingdom project is viewed by the Zoological Society of London as the most significant restructuring of London Zoo for forty years. The scheme focuses on the zoo’s wider strategy of providing enlarged and enhanced animal enclosures and removing (where possible) bars, cages and the visually obtrusive barriers that separate animals from visitors.
Our design evolved over a two year collaborative dialogue with the team of in-house project advisors, animal experts, keepers and external consultants to create an immersive landscape and visitor attraction which will highlight the plight of western lowland gorillas and other native species of the African rainforests of the Congo and Gabon.
Early concepts for a biome structure made in ETFE were abandoned when a gorilla escaped from its enclosure in Dallas Zoo in March 2004. The resultant need for higher and more robust enclosures required a radical rethink. The client’s reassessment focussed the brief around the partial demolition (not the total demolition as envisaged with the biome) of the existing Sobell Pavilions which have housed primates since the 1970s.
The provision of new night quarters, a day ‘gym’ and visitor viewing areas, creating the backdrop for both face-to-face encounters with the animals and in parallel providing greater insight into Zoological Society of London’s fieldwork with the great apes of Gabon – all configured around the remaining framework of existing animal buildings, became the central theme for our studies.
New enclosures for diana monkeys, colobus monkeys, nile monitors, African tree frogs and white collar mangabes, together with a new aviary for lilly hoppers, Congo pea fowl and superb starlings are provided. In addition, the brief called for an area for corporate events – a new space where conservation agendas can be explained and promoted.
The design offers a series of viewpoints from which the visitor observes and is observed by the gorillas. These views unfold around a promenade, following a moat that bounds the gorillas new paddock and culminating in the boardwalk structures. The form and detailed design of this viewing enclosure evokes the culture and materials of the Gorillas’ natural habitat without the need for Disneyesque pastiche.
Ideas of short- and long-term ‘built in’ flexibility and adaptability are explored with the concept of the ‘folded’ boardwalk structure acting as the armature around which simple and robust animal enclosures and night quarters can be regularly and radically changed as husbandry techniques evolve.
This is a deliberate departure from the ‘geometric’ approach of Lubetkin and the concept of animals as theatre ‘in an atmosphere comparable to that of a circus’, with fixed sculptural forms designed to dramatise animal performance. Instead the visitor promenade becomes the framework around which animal environments can change and evolve over time.
The boardwalk is made from rich red ekki hardwood (recycled railway sleepers) and the ceiling and walls are clad in douglas fir faced ply panels patterned with cut-out sections and stripes of paint inspired by the rhythmic Kuba fabric patterns of the Congo region. The visitor boardwalk is separated from the gorillas by a glass wall which is supported laterally by the canopy columns. The columns are made from bamboo, a material reference to the gorillas’ natural habitat and (we believe) the first use of structural bamboo in the UK. Here ZSL can hold corporate events and promote conservation agendas relating to the gorillas’ natural environment.
The boardwalk spaces are enclosed beneath a proprietary multicell polycarbonate system, used externally as roofing and wall cladding, combined with a perforated timber inner cladding. This provides a patterned daylighting effect within the visitor viewing areas, which not only makes cultural references to the Kuba fabric patterns but also suggests the dappled light of a rainforest canopy.
The visitor canopy is ‘fractured’ next to the day gym, allowing light to penetrate to the ‘rainforest’ floor. Here landscape architect Graham Pockett has located bamboo and broad-leafed trees (magnolia grandiflora and eucryphia ex nymansensis), echoing a passage from Travels in West Africa (1897) by Mary Kingsley: ‘Some stretches of forest were made up of thin spindly stemmed trees of great height, and among these stretches I always noticed the ruins of some forest giant, whose death by lightning or by his superior height having given the demoniac tornado wind an extra grip on him, had allowed sunlight to penetrate the lower regions of the forest; and then evidently the seedlings and saplings who had for years been living a half-starved life for light, shot up.’
Architect: Proctor and Matthews; design team: James Burch, John Hatton, Rob Holford, Andrew Matthews, Stephen Proctor, Eleanor Suess, David Wong; interpretation designer: Bremner & Orr; landscape: GK Pockett; m&e: Hurley Palmer; planning supervisor, qs: WT Partnership; structural engineer: Brand Leonard; client, project manager: Zoological Society of London.
Selected suppliers and subcontractors
Main contractor Crispin & Borst; colobus mesh net tunnel: Mendip Manufacturing Agency; Gunite specialist: Alan Bishop; ply panel manufacturer: Alexander Cleghorn; roofing: Tego Roofing; steelwork: Fussey Engineering; south-east primate cage: Carl Stahl Evita; acrylic panels (Plexiglas over boardwalk 1, laminated glazing and acrylic canopy between boardwalk 1 and 2): Degussa; acrylic viewing dome on day gym keeper’s door: Display Developments; automatic doors and gorillas’ door gears/control: Kone Bolton Brady; bamboo for structural columns and balustrades: UK Bamboo Supplies; high-level mesh (Knitmesh): Cadisch MDA; colobus mesh net tunnel (Jakob Webnet): Jakob AG Drahtseilfabrik; door ironmongery: Franchi Locks & Tools; specialist hinges: Simonswerk; boardwalk paints (Okios Multifund acrylic) for patterns on boardwalk canopy: Trade Paint Services; gorilla climbing wall fixings: BleauStone; 45mm laminated gorilla-proof glazing, cantilevered glazing balustrade: Solaglas Saint-Gobain; hessian banner displays and mesh pvc sunshade: Banner Box; lighting: Lightworks; louvres in day gym: Gilberts; douglas fir ply panels with cut outs: Montague Meyer; insulated rooflights for day gym roof: Hambleside Danelaw; recycled railway sleepers (ekki & jarrah) for boardwalk cladding and flooring: Ashwell; resin bound gravel: Sureset; multicell polycarbonate panels (Danpalon) on boardwalk roofs and backwall cladding: Danpal.
AT179/June 07 p46.