The new Noah’s Ark

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Since the dawn of civilisation, capturing animals has been a common practice. At first, human beings were motivated by pure basic instinct – the need to survive – seeking food and protection. Subsequently curiosity and the instinct for collection and agricultural practice elevated humans beyond mere survival. The history of zoological parks finds its roots in this desire for knowledge.

The history of modern zoos began when the Imperial Menagerie of the Habsburg court in Vienna was founded in 1752 and subsequently opened to the public in 1765. The London Zoo was installed in 1828 in Regent’s Park and was originally destined for scientifically research. In 1847 it also became public and, simultaneously, the abbreviation “zoo” appeared for the first time in the British press. Since then, the encaged condition of animals became accepted and almost normalised.

As a result, zoological gardens have the capacity to reflect the relationship between society and nature. As European imperialism coincided with significant geographical discoveries animals and plants were transferred to royal courts as proofs of the existence of faraway lands – now conquered and ruled. Science became conscious of the incredible diversity of living forms and started to study the complex structure which connects them. Zoological knowledge became precise during the 19th century and the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859 introduced the notion of “evolution”.

Although zoological research became scientific, the explosion of the “colonial world” in the first half of the 20th century transformed the “exotic animal” into a geopolitical interest with the “need to know in order to understand” being still largely dominated by “the need to know in order to own”. The publication in 1908 of Beasts and Men by Carl Hagenbeck, founder of the Hamburg Zoo, represented a turning point in the understanding of the idea of zoos. And at the beginning of the 20th century, design also became a feature to be exhibited and, following principles of nature, steel fencing disappeared.

The post-war era brought industrial and economical optimism all over the western world. Natural resources seemed inexhaustible and urban expansion became necessary. Zoos presented animals in a scientific context but separated from the “human factor” – as if due to intellect men and women could abstract themselves from natural laws. However, in the 1960s and the early 1970s, several events questioned this vision.

One of the most significant alerts was the first oil crisis in 1973 when it became evident that the financial and economical equilibrium of the developed world was not as stable as it was thought to be. The awakening of ecological consciousness and the growing anxiety about the fragility of the biosphere had a huge impact on the evolution of zoos. During the last few decades, with the aim of safeguarding endangered species, zoos have become the “Noah’s Ark of the biodiversity”. Several species exist today thanks to the valuable work of zoological gardens.

This interest in scientific research has been parallel to the desire for entertainment. Every contemporary zoo attempts to negotiate between attracting a maximum number of visitors and being ethical. The frequently asked question is – how can we justify keeping animals in captivity today? Here two major goals can be outlined. The first is the unmistakable role of contemporary zoos as centres of conservation of endangered species. The second is the sensitisation of the public on the alarming state of natural habitats and biodiversity all over the world. If humanity is a species that reacts favourably to positive stimulation, then education constitutes a powerful device with more capacity to change than the demonstration of culpability. It is the pedagogical discourse transmitted through an immersive visit which enables zoos to become advocates of the global ecological cause.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault considered gardens and zoos as perfect examples of “heterotopia”, places which recall thousands of other places. In zoological gardens, landscapes of the tropical Africa and the freezing Arctic are juxtaposed and interwoven – many windows are opened to the “large unknown”. Zoos inspire imagination and spiritual travelling.

At TN plus landscape architects we are deeply convinced of these principles and in all of our zoo projects we refer to the same method – a scientifically founded pedagogical discourse. In short, we follow the approach begun at the end of the past century which aims to reduce the barriers between human beings and “the other animal species”. In our zoos, visitors become part of their own invention – humility dominates and the immersion in nature recalls our belonging to the animal world. From the Big Rock of Paris-Vincennes to the swamp of Saint Petersburg and from the Chinese wetlands of Wuhan to the island of Korkesaari in Helsinki, the zoo projects in our hands engage a strong dialogue with their host territory, giving a primary importance to the question of heritage.

Zoos represent a very particular branch of garden history, a “timeless” typology. If zoos are the Noah’s Ark of today, it is precisely because of this assumed insularity that they can be also considered as the archetypes of gardens. Their closed universe recalls evidently the “hortus conclusus” of the Middle Ages or even the “Paradeisos” of the biblical garden. Their walls protect not only the animals that inhabit them but also the fragments of the untouched “natural” world – as mirrors reflecting a “lost paradise”. But this metaphor is far from being nostalgic. Beneath this timeless surface, all the efforts of contemporary science are at work in order to transform the zoo into the embassy of the ecological cause. The ultimate goal is to unveil the public’s awareness of the fragility of our planet.

by Bruno Tanant, Jean-Christophe Nani and Andras Jambor

(TN plus landscape architects)

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