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Islands at Chester Zoo: Kieran Stanley on Turning Guests into Explorers

Islands at Chester Zoo is the largest development in the history of UK zoos. The £40 million ground-breaking immersive experience, both high-tech and grass roots, takes visitors on an expedition across six Southeast Asian islands where they will encounter indigenous wildlife in a recreated native setting.

Travelling both on foot and by boat in the footsteps of the early explorers, visitors embark on a journey that the zoo hopes will delight, surprise and educate in equal measure.

Kieran Stanley,  CEO of CHester Zoo Island project architects,  dan pearlman Experience Architecture

Kieran Stanley, CEO of the project’s architects, dan pearlman, talks to Blooloop about his company’s own journey of exploration as it collaborated with Chester Zoo to bring Islands to life.

The Brief

dan pearlman already had several innovative zoo projects under its belt, including Hanover Zoo’s Yukon Bay, a fictional gold rush town and home to wolves, caribous, polar bears, seals and penguins and a safari through the Lost Valley at Everland Resort in South Korea, when they were approached by Chester Zoo in 2010.

“The trustees and the management of the zoo were doing a benchmarking trip around Europe looking at new zoos and went to the Hanover Zoo and saw the Yukon Bay project, ” explains Stanley.

dan pearlman Hannover Zoo Yukon Bay

“Yukon Bay and Chester Zoo’s new project had a similar budget so the management were able to get an idea of what they could achieve with that level of investment.  They wanted a partner to help clarify their strategic direction and to guide and help them take the zoo forward in a strategic manner but someone who could also be hands on with the project as well.”

The team at Chester Zoo were struck by the experiential nature of the storytelling:  “They said, OK we don’t really want it exactly like this, but at the same time it’s fantastically authentic and a great immersive experience and we’d like to talk to these people.”

Conservation is unquestionably at the top of the zoo’s agenda – their mission is to be “a major force in conserving biodiversity worldwide”. Visitor income directly supports the pioneering work they do in partnership with other professionals and conservation bodies across the globe. It was key that the project supported this ethos.

The project’s working title was Islands and Stanley says that he was keen to keep it.  "I really love the name Islands for the project.  It tells the whole story in a word.  For me it really works because it says everything and nothing at the same time.  It’s intriguing and enticing.  And that drove the design – you cross a bridge and go to the next zone.”

Islands at Chester Zoo

The Creative Process

Founded in 1999 in Berlin, dan pearlman describes itself as a ‘strategic creative agency’ with a ‘360° approach’ and is involved in all stages of a project from strategic positioning and creative development to implementation in architecture, landscape, design and media. Their signature creative process involves all stakeholders.  How did this approach work at Chester Zoo?

“It’s quite a complicated process within a zoo, ” admits Stanley.  “I would get everybody together in one room and do workshops, then individual sessions with the curators or marketing or retail or operations to get their input. That way, we could ‘top down’ the design, involving all the teams, and end up with a holistic design.”

Any surprises?

“I was delighted with how collaborative they were.  They were huge fans of the project already and, as we were designing it up and creating the vision and I was presenting it, everyone was totally on board.”


Islands focuses on six specific Southeast Asian islands – Panay, Papua, Bali, Sumatra, Sumba and Sulawesi. Rather than simply showcasing the wildlife of those islands, the project reconstructs the daily life of nature conservationists and gives visitors a chance to experience their work in a unique way.  By taking on the role of an explorer/conservationist, visitors become part of the team and the intention is that they are left with a feeling of ownership and a deeper understanding of the urgent need to protect these fragile habitats.

How does the design create that sense of exploration?

“It’s all about the immersive pathway – you’ve stumbled across this place and discovered something.

"I designed it with no entrance – just two giant rocks askew so that you catch a glimpse of something beyond. That’s the whole idea behind the communication strategy – you’re going on a mission.  There’s a winding pathway which has not got a straight line on it whatsoever so you never really see where you’re going. We don’t show you exactly where you’re supposed to walk, just a dotted line and say you’ll be going from island to island and then you find your way around it.

dan pearlman design chester zoo islands

“When you arrive at the start – Coral Sands – it feels like it’s a point of departure. There’s a little shop selling binoculars, safari hats and fans to keep you cool in the jungle and -many things a typical conservation worker needs – you can actually buy that stuff if you want to. You have a little notebook and there are special elements for kids (and everyone else as well). Then you just head off and follow the path and you eventually find your way to the village at the end and so you get that sense of achievement – you’ve arrived and you’re now part of the  Act for Wildlife team.”

Act for Wildlife is not simply a contrivance for the benefit of visitors. It is a wildlife conservation campaign led by Chester Zoo, helping to save endangered species around the world from extinction.

“The main thing was to not just pay lip-service to conservation.  It was to make sure that we drive the point home that islands are treasure houses of amazing species and jewels.”

The boat ride is another element that sets this experience apart.  The 450m  12 minute ride has a capacity of over 200  people.

chester zoo islands boat ride designed by dan pearlman

“Each boat is individually designed – we researched boat designs in the Indonesian islands.

The Buildings

Stanley explains that Islands is “a landscape-driven experience.  It was very important to keep Chester Zoo’s own signature but to interpret it anew.  The zoo is known for having widespread landscapes for the animals and they wanted to take that direction with our design. So, a key feature of the design was to make sure that the architecture is not taking a leading role. All the major buildings are on the periphery so they’re not at all visible, but if they are, they’re themed according to the zone they’re in.”

Monsoon Forest building by dan pearlman at Islands Chester Zoo

One of the showpieces of Islands, and indeed the zoo, is the Monsoon Forest building, home to a wide variety of animals including Sulawesi macaques and the Sunda gharial crocodile as well as a walk through aviary and Sumatran orang-utans arriving later in the year. 

“The building is a high-tech machine.  We designed it to be very efficient but, at the same time, it fits into the landscape.  All you can see popping out of the top is the transparent ETFE roof which lets UVA and UVB through for the plants and animals.

“There are a lot of animals in there and what we’re doing is taking the visitor right through the middle.  It’s quite complicated in one way but the idea is that the visitors don’t really feel like they’re in a building at all – they’re walking through a monsoon forest.  It even rains and thunders inside it.”


Chester Zoo Islands design by dan pearlman

Education was clearly a key focus for the project. How did dan pearlman ensure that they made the conservation message engaging?

“We developed a communication concept and strategy and integrated it, working closely with  the zoo’s education team, based on Osmotic Learning.

"What we did is implant elements to suggest that the conservation team has been there before you.  You see their camps set up that they have just left, or there are tables and chairs where they have been making observations and you see their notes – kind of like an over the shoulder view. One idea that we’ve been developing is when you come across this camp there’s a laptop open. One of the team in the field is skyping another in the camp saying, ‘I can’t believe it! I’ve just observed the female orangutan with a baby, ’ so you feel like you’ve happened across these things.

dan pearlman design chester zoo islands

"You’re allowed to discover for yourself and observe for a few moments.  We believe that’s a really strong way to get the message across.  Kind of indirect – you’re a witness to dialogue.”

The Animals

Aside from engaging the visitors, Stanley explains that the team has endeavoured to meet the needs of the animals housed within it.

“We designed the enclosures to mirror the natural habitats of the animals as far as possible with regard to specific landscape features, topography as well as the integration of a lot of behavioural enrichment into the enclosures so not just toys thrown in afterwards.”


And with much of Islands now open, what does Stanley feel has worked particularly well?

“Part of the brief was to increase the dwell-time in the zoo by over an hour and to increase the amount of visitors by 150, 000.

"What I believe Islands will achieve is to increase the dwell-time by over an hour and a half.

"We designed the pathway – 1.5 km long – to take you as far into and using the land as much as possible, making sure the visitor goes as deep as possible into the whole site.

chester zoo islands designed by dan pearlman


And, the challenges along the way

"The biggest challenge was to get that much into and out of the budget the budget – through value engineering we managed to guide it through.  Also, the complexity of the project – you really need people to have done this kind of project before. Another potential problem was designing a project in the UK from Berlin, but we managed this by getting a good communication platform up and running from the start."


islands at chester zoo designed by dan pearlman

So, what next for Islands and dan pearlman?

Once Islands is up and running, dan pearlman will continue to work with Chester Zoo on further elements of their masterplan. “We’re also doing a lot of work in both Berlin zoos. The first project is designing a new entrance for the Tierpark, the two playgrounds and redesign the tropical house experience.”

The first phase of Islands at Chester Zoo opened on 13th July followed by Monsoon Forest on 19th August and Sumatra will be launched later in the year. 

“Even though it was really full on and a lot of stress at times, there was a very open and cooperative and collaborative attitude with everyone on board, ” concludes Stanley.  

boat trip at chester zoo islands designed by dan pearlman

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