AN APPARENTLY INSUBSTANTIAL SILICONE-JOINTED WALL IS ALL THAT SEPARATES YOU FROM THE LIONS
Proctor and Matthews Architects was founded by Stephen Proctor and Andrew Matthews in 1988. The practice has completed several housing projects, including major residential developments at Greenwich Millennium Village in east London and New Hall in Harlow, Essex. Other projects include a 120-bedroom hotel in Cambridge and a research and development building on the Oxford University Science Park.
The Zoological Society of London was founded in 1826 by Sir Stamford Raffles and opened its site in Regent's Park to fellows of the society in 1828 as the world's first scientific zoo.
King William IV donated the Royal Menagerie in 1831 and in 1847 the zoo opened its doors to the public, principally as a means to raise funds for its scientific work. The zoo's patronage of highquality architecture was already well established by this time, with four of the site's eight Grade II-listed buildings already built to designs by Decimus Burton, who also set out the grounds.
In the early 20th century the need to keep and study large animals in more spacious and natural surroundings became apparent, and the search started for a large site reasonably close to London with good public access. In 1926 an ideal site was found - a 240ha derelict farm near Whipsnade on Bedfordshire's Chiltern Downs - which opened to the public in 1931.
Shortly afterwards, the society started perhaps its best-known architectural partnership with a series of buildings by Tecton, including both the Grade I-structures on the Regent's Park site: the Round House for gorillas and the iconic Penguin Pool. In the 1960s came Hugh Casson's Grade II-listed Elephant House and the aviary by Anthony Armstrong-Jones, Cedric Price and Frank Newby.
Recognition of the quality of its buildings has been a mixed blessing for the society. The welfare of its animals is paramount, as is the safety of the staff and public. Restrictions on altering listed buildings mean that these cannot easily be adapted to reflect changes in standards and practices, and most no longer house the animals they were designed to accommodate.
The larger species have gradually made the move to Whipsnade. Space is not a problem here but there is a danger that more space for the animals may mean a dilution of the intensity of the experience for the visitor, increasingly weaned on a diet of experiences requiring an attention span of no more than 30 seconds. A logical solution has been the concept of the safari park, where the visitor is transported in comfort in their personal mobile cage (their car) through an 'open' environment in which the animals roam relatively freely - a nice reversal of the relative positions of man and beast in a conventional zoo. However, the safari park has its drawbacks: you sit, isolated, in a queue of traffic with a limited view of the animals and a nagging worry that some vital part of your car will be damaged by the monkeys.
The society has been working with US-based concept designer Studio Hanson/Roberts, which is involved with zoos, aquaria and other interpretive centres around the world, to try to address some of these issues. Hanson/Roberts' concept is to create 'immersive experiences' that bring the public 'nose to nose' with the animals, to reconnect the visitor with the animals' natural habitat and understand how they interact with the human population who share that environment.
Hanson/Roberts proposed that the new lion exhibit at Whipsnade was linked with a new Carnivore Conservation Village, with an interpretation centre providing information on the wildlife and the people of the Serengeti. This would provide a focus for a relatively intensive grouping of smaller exhibits, including a termitarium and animals such as aardvarks, mongooses and tortoises, together with an area for picnics linking it to the nearby related zebra and cheetah exhibits.
So far, only the bare bones of the Carnivore Conservation Village have been constructed but it does start to create a 'place', set among the mature belt of trees that flanks the north and east side of Proctor and Matthews' new lion enclosure. It gathers visitors arriving from different directions before channeling them towards the new lion building, which, although modest in size, forms an intriguing focal point with its patchwork roof of woven timber panels, drawing visitors naturally towards it. Work is continuing on the area but, at present, the zoo's minimal information panels and collections of artifacts both within the building and beside the paths that lead to it feel rather lost and struggle to make the connection between the savannah and the quietly powerful, very English parkland setting of Whipsnade - admittedly a tall order, even if the society had a budget of Disney World proportions.
The controlled and oblique route into the building keeps the surprise of the immediacy of the relationship between visitor and animal almost secret until you actually enter the viewing shelter itself. You are then presented with a 180º panorama that includes the entrance to the lions' night shelter and its associated south-facing day shelter on one side, a grass bank in front of the building (an intentional psychological device that puts the animals on a higher level than the viewer) and longer views across the rest of the park. The ground plane of the shelter runs uninterrupted through an apparently insubstantial silicone-jointed glass wall which is all that separates you from the lions - a genuinely faceto-face encounter at the same level as the animal. A panel on the day-shelter side of the viewing shelter can be slid back by the keepers, who can encourage the lions to stand against the wire mesh for a closer encounter - even the most beautiful wildlife documentary can still not quite conjure up the smell of a lion at close quarters.
The shelter is thus more belvedere than hide and defined almost entirely by its roof. This is composed as three facets, supported on round timber columns and light timber trusses, which fold down to the ground on the north-eastern side and sweep up to direct the visitor's attention out into the enclosure. Towards its high point the roof ties in with the extremely muscular 5m-high security fence that circles the enclosure and which provides an unfortunately solid reminder that these are extraordinarily powerful, dangerous animals.
From the outside, the roof presents a carefully detailed chequerboard of overlapping woven eucalyptus and reed panels, cut away in part to allow an acacia tree, typical of the Serengeti, to grow through. The materials and form give an impression that this is a light, semi-permanent shelter that refers back to an African environment without resorting to pastiche. The architect's original concept shows a roof made up of recycled materials and, while the reed is indeed salvaged from a previous job for the park, the idea of using rusty corrugated iron sheeting from an old barn in the park did not materialise. This is a pity; the eucalyptus panels were made in Tanzania using timber from sustainable coppices but it is questionable whether this association with the animals' 'original' habitat (these are British-born lions) and any benefit to the people who made them makes up for the environmental cost of transporting them. It would arguably have been more appropriate to use native species to achieve the same effect.
From the inside of the visitor shelter, although the whole of the top section of roof is solid, the overall impression is of dappled light finding its way through the woven roof; the polycarbonate sheeting below it keeps the rain out. This is very successful, combining ideas of shelter, lightness, the enjoyment of natural materials and craft in an understatedly exotic way. What seems less successful is how the geometry of the roof meets the geometry of the plan and the security fence. There are some awkward junctions and the solidity of the fence's steel structure and the support of the top of the glass screen overpowers the primary timber structure of the building in some areas. The clarity of the building section is also compromised somewhat by a roundwood stockade added by the park that closes off the back of the viewing shelter and runs out through the entrance.
Hopefully, this will be a temporary arrangement as the park's excellent in-house landscape team develops the area.
It is also a pity that the original concept of running the external patchwork along in front of the lions' night shelter was not carried through due to the budget limitations. The result is that the night shelter is visible as a low, utilitarian structure apparently added on to the more elegant viewing shelter. Given the relatively small scale of the new intervention in the landscape, there would have been merits in treating the composition as one piece, rather than two rather different buildings. That said, the approach taken does allow the park easily to alter or extend the night quarters to respond to developing best practice in a way that has not been possible with some of the society's illustrious architectural building stock.
Overall, the approach taken here is exactly right. This is not a self-important building; it forms a shelter that is noticed but not noticeable, drawing the visitor in as they approach, controlling and enhancing the experience of the encounter with the animals and balancing the needs of visitor and animal appropriately. Hopefully this is the start of an association between the Zoological Society and its architects that will reinvigorate the pubic face of the organisation, enabling it to continue to extend its scientific and conservation work worldwide.