An elephant stares past the zoo enclosure gates
Enclosure for Asian elephants at Copenhagen Zoo, designed by Foster + Partners and completed in 2008. © Natascha Meuser

Author Natascha Meuser describes zoo architecture as a “masquerade” that borrows from museums, prisons, and theaters.

This year, more than 181 million people in the U.S. will visit a zoo. Globally, in cities from London to Beijing to San Diego, zoos are major tourist attractions and beloved local amenities. But how many visitors pay attention to the architecture as well as the animals? According to Natascha Meuser, not enough.

Frustrated at the lack of unified literature on zoo design, Meuser, an architecture professor at Germany’s Anhalt University of Applied Sciences, wrote the book she wanted to read. Zoo Buildings: Construction and Design Manual (DOM Publishers, $99.95) is in equal parts a history of zoo design, a manual for animal-enclosure best practices, and a choose-your-own-adventure of visual case studies.

Meuser chronicles the evolution of the modern zoo from “a living collection of game trophies, to a museum of live exhibits, to a theme park with a moral mission.” Surveying more than 80 historical and modern zoos across the world (with a particular focus on her native Germany), she takes readers through the fraught and ever-shifting relationship between humans and other animals, shaped by colonialism, conservation, and capitalism. She makes the case that zoos should be treated seriously as their own building typology, and more broadly, return to their earlier role as scientific institutions.

CityLab asked Meuser about the connection between zoo architecture and the natural environment, the balance between science and slick branding, and the zoo building’s hybrid role as a prison, theater, and museum. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What are the five generations of zoo architecture and the broad political and social themes that characterize them?

I tried to start at the French Revolution, when the zoo starts to be a more scientific institution. Before, it was more or less a place where rich people kept animals for their own pleasure, but there was no scientific approach behind it.

After the French Revolution, [one of the first zoos] was built in Paris. There were more people who got to see these exotic animals. Also, architecture starts to play a role; at this time, there was a [trend] to use exotic buildings to show exotic animals. But this trend was not only seen in the zoo. Exotic architecture at this time was also all over Europe, because it was the first time people got to see foreign countries.

Visitors to London Zoo flee from an escaped kangaroo in an early 19th-century illustration. Exotic architecture is seen in the background. (© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

At this time, people didn’t know a lot about the behavior of exotic animals, so they just put them into small cages. People were just passing by and looked at one animal next to another animal. This [setup] was kept pretty long, around 100 years.

Children watch bears at an American zoo in the 1910s or 1920s. (Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress)

Then Carl Hagenbeck [a German animal merchant who founded the Tierpark Hagenbeck in Hamburg and invented the infamous “human zoo”] had the fantastic idea to get rid of the bars and put the animals into a landscape. This was the first time, in the beginning of the 20th century, that they showed the animal in a landscape. This [second] generation lasted about 30 years.

[Next], in Europe there was a new trend in architecture; it was modernistic. At the same time, they got to know more about the health and the behavior of animals, so they put the animals into these modern cages with tiles. It was very reduced architecture. Now the animals were not in a landscape anymore. They were kept in houses that look like butcher houses. This [third generation] also lasted around 30 years.

Then the fourth generation was in the ‘60s, when people got more aware about the environment. They said, ‘Oh, we can’t show animals anymore in these strange cages. Let’s hide the architecture.’

And then, in the last generation today, they build huge, iconic buildings. They’re almost like huge entertainment parks.

Aerial view of the Paris Zoological Park, redesigned by Bernard Tschumi with Véronique Descharrières. (© Véronique Descharrières Architecte)

You mentioned that in the fourth generation, the architecture became hidden, secondary to the landscape. What does the fifth generation say about our priorities?

In my research, I tried to figure out the relationship between man and animal in each generation. And unfortunately, [current] architecture already reflects this. It shows the state of mind that we as people have toward animals. And the strange thing is, until today, nothing has really caused a tremendous change. We still keep animals in enclosures. They’re a little bigger and a little bit more—at least in Europe or in the United States—fancy, with nice scenery. But still, we still keep animals for our pleasure. In my opinion, it’s a strange thing, and it reflects our position as people that we still don’t care that much about nature and animals.

Visitors watch a polar-bear cub, Knut, at Zoo Berlin in 2007. (Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters)

Do you think animals can be kept ethically within zoos?

My personal position is zoos are important. I think it’s fantastic work, what people there are doing. I think since zoos always have problems with financing, they need to generate money, [and] they only generate money if they have attractions.

And this is the weak point: Zoos turn into entertainment centers, but they should go back to [being] scientific institutions. They should be more self-confident instead of following all these trends. People want to be entertained in a swimming pool, people want to be entertained in a hotel, and they want to be entertained in a zoo. But in a zoo, we have a different responsibility because we tell people about nature—about why we [exist].

You write in the book that nature and wilderness are presented in zoos today the way that unfamiliar cultures used to be. Why is nature now considered a huge selling point for zoos?

Because they are setting up nature like a big theater, with specialists working on these decorations. The main point about zoos is that they have to build enclosures, and people do not want to see barriers, so they try to hide the barriers in a very smart way. They use concrete, nature, and artificial things so people forget about these barriers. People want to go to the zoo and and have a lovely look at the animals. The setting is like a theater stage.

The Budongo Trail, billed as “the world’s most innovative, interactive chimpanzee enclosure,” at Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland. (© Lucas Wahl)

You also write that zoo design draws on the architectural typologies of prisons, theaters, and museums. I was wondering if you could explain what that looks like in practice and how those competing needs and design elements are balanced.

If you see the barriers, it looks more like a prison. If you have beautiful settings, it’s more like a theater. If the focus is on teaching people, it looks more like a museum. But it’s all about aesthetics. That’s what I figured out: It’s a masquerade. You’re playing with the awareness of people.

Is there any form or style of zoo architecture that you would want to bring back?

Exotic architecture, if you use building history to educate people. Not only educating about the animals, but showing that this is real architecture. But it shouldn’t be fantasy, artificial stuff. Why not use some [architectural]  elements from Asian or African countries, if you can teach at the same time that this is something typical in those countries?

But I’m strictly against Mickey Mouse-architecture stuff. It doesn’t look any different than going to an amusement park.

About the Author

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