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Are animals the most difficult clients?

Yesterday The Architects’ Journal announced that Ray Hole Architects has been appointed to design a new home for lions and primates at London Zoo that will give them a more natural environment. And today pilots have been instructed not to fly over Edinburgh Zoo in an attempt not to disrupt the treasured pregnancy of Tian Tian, a giant panda. There is a constant conflict that what is good for people – city living, easy transport and, in zoos, the chance to see what is going on – is not good for animals.

London Zoo in particular is litter with architectural white elephants (pun intended). The penguins have gone from Lubetkin’s penguin pool, and the Mappin Terraces, originally intended for use by bears, now house an Australian outback exhibit. The zoo is blessed or cursed with a series of listed buildings which just do not line up with the latest beliefs about animal husbandry. Now the trend is for the buildings to be less grand, but to function primarily as habitats with creating wonderment in the visitor a secondary consideration.

This is being taken to the greatest extreme in the plans for Zootopia in Denmark, designed by Bjarke Ingels’ BIG (scarcely a shrinking violet) where the idea is that the animals will roam freely and the humans will be in cages. It seems we will just keep on trying to make these unnatural habitats as bearable as possible, and give the poor old animals some approximation of their ‘normal’ life. Which of course is also decreasing in appeal, as they are subject to the pressures brought by population expansion.

London Zoo’s listed buildings are younger than many of the houses that Londoners inhabit happily. But whereas our homes have in many cases adapted to our changing requirements and higher standards of living, animals always want much the same thing and never really get it. We keep trying harder, but we will never reach perfection. And of course, zoos have the inherent conflict of trying simultaneously to combine the roles of conservator, research establishment and entertainment facility.

We hear more and more about consultation in architecture but what do you do when your client are both very picky and devoid of speech? You just keep trying to make things better, while accepting that you will never provide total satisfaction. Which does, after all, sound like a lot of architecture.

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