ZSL London Zoo’s newest exhibit, Land of the Lions, connects visitors with the big cats and their native habitat like never before.
Highly detailed immersive theming has transformed 2, 500m² of England’s capital zoo into the Gir region of India complete with a train station, Hindu temple and a street of shops.
The Endangered Asiatic lions wander close to the manmade structures as they do in the wild and visitors are afforded exceptional views.
The exhibit is further brought to life by chance encounters with other animals native to the region in authentic settings including langur monkeys ‘raiding’ one of the shops.
Blooloop spoke to the project’s lead designers, Ray Hole Architects, ZSL London Zoo and specialist theming company, Paragon Creative, about the rewards and challenges they faced when creating the largest and most immersive exhibit in the zoo’s history.
A Matter of Pride
“Our number one inspiration was our Asiatic lion pride, ” says Robin Fitzgerald, Senior Project Manager at ZSL London Zoo. “We wanted to create an incredible new home for our London-born lionesses Heidi (above), Rubi and Indi and our newest resident Bhanu, who joined us from Assiniboine Zoo in Winnipeg, Canada.
“Then, we were inspired by the Asiatic lions’ wild home in the Gir National Park, along with the village of Sasan Gir, where the community lives in such close proximity to the wild lions.”
“The interesting aspect is how the locals of the area live extremely closely yet harmouniously alongside the lions and how their paths cross on an almost daily basis as the lions wander into the villages, ” agrees Paragon Creative’s David Johnson. “The theming and detail of the area is all based upon this concept.”
Fitzgerald adds, “We wanted to communicate the message that Asiatic lions only exist in the wild in this one small area in India, so were tasked with recreating parts of the region in the exhibit to support this messaging.”
Balancing Animal Husbandry with Visitor Experience
In order to create an authentic setting, the zoo carried out extensive research, sending a design team out to India to experience the Gir region at first hand.
“We had to balance animal husbandry with visitor experience and this directly translated into the creation of the landscape, ” explains Fitzgerald.
“We researched the typical planting soil and topography found in the Gir region and balanced this with visitor viewing area requirements while always keeping lion welfare at the forefront of our plans. It was paramount that they have an engaging environment with, for example, heated snoozing rocks, high viewing platforms and both sunny and shaded areas.”
“This exhibit also differed from others before it as we looked at the region as a whole, its people and customs and the human/animal interaction that takes place there, which is truly unique. So the railway platform, ranger’s house and the high street are all there to tell the story of how close and special this interaction is.
“We also had the benefit of the Conservation Programme Field team, which was set up as part of this project to fully understand the issues and daily challenges of conservation in the region.”
A Courageous Commission
Ray Hole of Ray Hole Architects describes the zoo as ‘very courageous’ for commissioning a project of such scope:
“The overriding purpose of this new exhibit is that it becomes a fundamental part of ZSL’s mission – aimed not only at bringing increased awareness to the ongoing plight of the last stronghold population of this IUCN Redlist(ed) Endangered subspecies (estimated to be 523 animals in 2015), but also form part of an European Endangered Species Programme, dedicated to growing a genetically healthy and thriving captive population.”
Visitor & Animal Environments
Once the area for the new exhibit had been identified, the next step was to define the project’s strategic brief.
It was decided that 4 principal animal environments and 5 visitor environments were required:
- Asiatic Lions – to occupy 2 contrasting environments
- Hanuman Langurs – to occupy 2 interconnected areas
- Plus a number of other species – Flamingo, Mongoose and Muntjac
- Village and Suburban High Street
- Ruined Fort
- Railway Station and Railway Bridge
- Girnar Hills and Riverside Trail
- Lion Temple
Additionally, the zoo was keen to provide a luxury and unique accommodation experience for guests, which led to the creation of the Gir Lion Lodges within the exhibit.
Making the Most of Existing Assets
Ray Hole Architects began by exploring how they could make best strategic and economic use of the zoo’s existing infrastructure:
“We wanted to exploit these existing “assets” as an integral part of the new exhibit – reinforcing our practice’s philosophy of reduce, re-use and recycle – but which helps to reduce Capex and OpsCosts also.
“In addition, we wanted to exploit existing building facades as new enclosure boundaries whilst providing expanded and diverse vistas from within and beyond the new exhibit across the adjacent landscapes – including the surrounding (Royal) Regents Park.”
Crucially, says Hole, the large size of the exhibit allowed the designers to “increase the density and variety of animal/visitor engagement whilst providing the maximum space for the animals, allowing them free choice of location and movement within the exhibit.”
The agreed timescale for the project was 18 months from inception to completion – ambitious enough when dealing with an empty site but fraught with challenges in a busy zoo.
“We were working on a very busy ‘building site’ on and over some quite challenging terrain, ” says Johnson. “However our talented install teams have worked on a wide range of challenging sites over the years and handled the install challenges very well.”
Fitzgerald says, “We had to work around beautiful protected trees, utilise existing structures, all while remaining open to our visitors and being careful not to disturb our more than 18, 000 animal residents.”
Key to the success of the project would be the depth of visitor engagement delivered by close encounters with the lions and immersive storytelling.
The Anchor Experiences – a No-Barrier Approach
“The ‘anchor experiences’ comprise the 360 degree Lion Temple and Sasan Gir Railway Platform Encounters – supported by an array of other experiences, ” says Hole.
“Both distinctively different settings stage exciting opportunities for animal:visitor proximity – creating the illusion of a no barrier environment.”
The ‘no barrier’ approach finds its ultimate expression at the Temple where the public are separated from the lions by 5m high-tensioned cables designed to ‘disappear’ when the viewer focuses on the animals.
“You’re only separated from the lions by only fine wires, ” says Fitzgerald.
“You can hear, smell and feel the power of these animals and it’s unnerving in the most exciting way imaginable. I don’t believe there is a comparable lion exhibit that gives you this experience.”
“We particularly loved the theming we applied to the 360 Lion Temple, ” says Johnson. “This particular area stood out to us due to its size, architectural complexity and stunning finish.”
Hole also cites the Temple as a highlight: “creating the sense of being in the Lions environment. The closer you approach the lions the less built environment is surrounding you.
“We had to carry out special tests on sight interference (natural light on cables/size of cables) and loading on the tension cables.”
Further close-up views are afforded on the Railway Platform through more familiar glazing.
The project’s clever repurposing of existing features has offered numerous and unusual opportunities for animal encounters:
“A day den has been modelled from a family home where lions have invaded the back yard, ” says Hole.
An Immersive Experience
“The original lion exhibit water feature has been (re)contextualised to create a river edge between lions and visitors; elevated views into the Gir Forest are given from the Railway Bridge; and the Girnar Hills overhead walkway trail provide glimpses at different levels as the thematic access ramp meanders down to the riverside level. Additional lion encounters also occur through the peripheral railway goods yard fencing looking across the Mongoose enclosure.”
The immersive experience is further enhanced by: “the deliberate creation of viewpoints that include other visitors in different parts/levels of the attraction – again reinforcing the sense of visitors within the Lions’ landscape – and not simply a staged view through a glass portal – sounds, smells and vibrations from low frequency growling are all incorporated.”
Hair Raising Fun
There are lighter-hearted elements, too. Information posters have been designed in Bollywood style. There are humorous references to the lions around the exhibit in Indian-style advertising hoardings. Educational elements are imaginatively presented in context – the barber shop is used to explain why male lions have manes and offers fun photo opportunities to ‘mane yourself’.
The depth and scope of Land of the Lions also required new skills from even the most experienced team members:
“We developed techniques that we had not tried before with regard to the mixing/combining of materials for the scenery, ” says Johnson.
“We also produced a lot of the main rockwork armatures off site and transported them to site to then secure to the as-built block work walls prior to meshing up and applying the Themecrete finish. This was another first for us, which proved to be very effective!”
A Testament to Team Work
Despite the enormity of the project, it was delivered on time – clearly a testament to effective team-working.
“Ray has an infectious enthusiasm that instantly rubbed off on to the project team, ” says Fitzgerald. “Not only did our partnership with him result in a steady stream of practical solutions to the concept, but he added a refreshing, creative edge that really took the exhibit to another level.”
“The client team was wonderful, ” says Johnson. “Throughout the project they were very supportive, very encouraging and helped us tremendously to keep on track. This makes working on a project like this much easier when everyone is working together towards the same goal.
“We have worked with Ray Hole on a number of great projects in the past so it was a pleasure to work with his talented team again.”
“We enjoyed filling the design/imagineering gaps between the traditional interpretation support from the in-house team and specialist attraction thematic – and this is where our introduction and collaboration with Paragon was essential, ” says Hole.
“This project was also being created in parallel to Kidzania (another RHA/Paragon collaboration) – so we can imagine more synergy (business development, project strategy and design/implementation) in the future.”
Land of the Lions was opened by HM The Queen on March 17th 2016. When asked which areas individual team members are most proud of, their answers echo one another.
Making the Messaging Real and Exciting
Johnson: “To be honest, we’re proud of the entire exhibit. The final result was quite breath-taking.”
Hole: It’s not necessarily the bit – but the whole we are most pleased with – as we have achieved a good “sweet spot” across a very large attraction. Furthermore the density of engagement moments/locations and types is very high.”
Fitzgerald: This type of exhibit engages the visitor deeply, giving them access to a different world, which in turn makes the messaging real and exciting.”
Johnson says the project is already inspiring other zoos to take a more thematic approach to experience design:
“Since Land of the Lions opened, we have actually had a call from another major UK zoo who had seen what we achieved and have already asked for potential help on future projects at their site. This is the biggest compliment that we can receive.”
The list of projects on the go for Ray Hole Architects includes West Midlands Safari Park (Water Park) as well as master planning for Paradise Park and a destination resort in Cambodia.
A Room With A Zoo
So what next for the ZSL London Zoo?
“Our Gir Lion Lodge is opening in May, which will give visitors the opportunity to spend the night in the heart of the zoo. We’ve designed nine colourful private cabins within the Land of the Lions exhibit to immerse people even further in the world of the Gir National Park.
“If waking up to the sound of a lion’s roar is on your bucket list then this is the experience for you. It’s absolutely unique.”
Images kind courtesy Paragon Creative, Ray Hole Architects and ZSL London Zoo.
‘Sleep like a lion’ design on the fence by Ged Palmer
Poster Design: The Lion’s Roar – Jo Thompson, Beyond the Forest- Matt Cotterill, Four Days of Love – Jonny Burrows, Claws, paws and snores – Rosey Taylor, Younger Man – Matt Cotterill, Comeback – Rosey Taylor, Crucial Judgement – Rosey Taylor, The Incredible Tail – Rebecca Low, London Pride – Rebecca Low