The Zoo Story
At Heinle, Wischer und Partner's latest project in Dresden, Germany, the clients were real animals
Maria Shollenbarger -- Interior Design, 1/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
The Grosser Garten is Dresden's crown jewel. It became a public garden in 1814, occupying roughly three quarters of a square mile in the center of the eastern German city. Wide pedestrian paths crisscross the manicured landscape, and the zoo has long been a source of particular pride and joy.
Lately, regular visitors to Zoo Dresden have become aware of a curved building in a small clearing at the park's edge. Clad in vertical strips of birch, painted shades of brown and gray, the new structure stands in eye-catching contrast to its better-known neighbor, a vast baroque summer palace, but still merges seamlessly with the surrounding woods. Occasionally, one of the tenants—19 feet tall, with a soft russet-and-sand pelt, giant limpid brown eyes, and a formidably long neck—might lope out to enjoy some fresh air.
It's true: One of Dresden's most avant-garde and talked-about architecture projects is an animal house, a state-of-the-art environment for the zoo's fledgling giraffe and zebra populations. "This sort of commission is not so, shall we say, usual. It certainly wasn't our forte," Thomas Heinle says with a chuckle. But it was perhaps more a forte for Heinle, Wischer und Partner Freie Architekten than for many other firms, considering that he had already participated in the total renovation of an enormous, decrepit warehouse where the zoo now grows and stores its entire population's food, from nonindigenous grasses and vegetation to live poultry. "We jumped on this commission though it was neither sexy nor familiar, because we always welcome research-based projects," Heinle continues. "It's fascinating to learn a great deal about highly specialized environments."
After Heinle won a competition for the design, the science lessons began. "For the warehouse, we had already worked with a very fine zoology and biology team, and they gave us a sort of crash course on giraffes," he says. The architects soon knew their "client's" requirements, inside and out: heat and light, food and air, space.
It was in planning that the scientists proved indispensable, keeping the architects on track in terms of materials and dimensions. The birch slats forming the building's curved walls, for instance, had to be spaced with meticulous care. "Giraffes have extremely long, dexterous tongues and long, fragile leg bones. We had to ensure we didn't inadvertently create hazards with too-big or too-small spaces for things to get stuck," Heinle says. The walls' undulations are meant to evoke the shimmering heat waves of the savanna, where giraffes and zebras roam. "We first thought to paint the slats in a pattern like the coat of a giraffe," Heinle says. "But it quickly became apparent that this would only act as camouflage. You wouldn't see the animals nearly as well." A uniform shade of straw yellow was settled on instead.
When considering floor material, Heinle likewise had to contend with many a factor that doesn't apply to your garden-variety office commission. The high acid content in giraffe urine, for instance, can dissolve a lesser surface. Ultimately, he went with a much-tested mixture of epoxy and vegetable grease with a healthy measure of sand for traction. "As with everything in the environment, the floor had to be hygienic, nonhazardous, and strong enough to stand up to the animals," he says. "Of course, it also had to look good."
Emphasizing the soaring scale of the 9,000-square-foot space, a corridor enclosed by sheets of glass meanders through the center. The clear glass allows a visitor at one end, looking all the way through, to see another human and a giraffe in spatial relation to each other. That glass is double-laminated, by the way. "Giraffes, when they get angry, are strong kickers," Heinle notes.
Seen from outside, the most striking thing about the birch-clad building is how effectively it blends into its surroundings, thanks in part to the virtual elimination of fences. At the border between the animals' environment and the public garden outside the zoo, a landscape architect simply built a 20-degree incline. "The animals can't navigate it, for anatomical reasons," Heinle explains. The resulting impression is that the giraffes and zebras have the run of the park.
Opening day was, by all press accounts, a major event for Dresdeners. So how did it go, for both the visitors and the visited? "The giraffes had a couple of weeks to be acclimated by zoologists before the environment opened," Heinle says. "The first day, with all the crowds and screaming kids and flashes going off—let's say there was a lot of action!"