Zoo Trails and the Juxtaposition of the Extreme

"The contrast of ordered steel tunnels against natural vegetation draws the eye." Zoo designer Stacey Tarpley on the aesthetics and visual contrast of the zoo trail.

tiger on zoo360 crossing at philadelphia zoo
Two things are on my mind today as I sit down to write this. One, my recent two week jaunt through Japan with my sister and friend, and two, the upcoming opening of the big cat portion of the Zoo360 trail system at Philadelphia Zoo.

Seemingly, they have little in common, but I assure you, they are winding trails leading to the same point: the beauty of contrast.

If, like me in February, you’ve never been to Japan, let me explain something. This is a land of constant contrast. Its five thousand people chaotically scrambling against the clock to cross at the convergence of five streets in Shibuya. Yet, it’s the polite, orderly queue and unspoken coordination of exiting and entering a train. It’s the ornate and historic shrine hidden between the lingerie shop and cell phone cover stand in Kyoto’s Nishiki Market. It’s being swept up with the audience in visual and auditory insanity of Robot Restaurant, and the quiet contemplative moment between you and your new feline friend at the Calico Caf .

These contrasts serve to highlight the differences between them. They force us to identify what exactly it was that we loved so much about each. As we designers say, it’s the juxtaposition of the extremes that’s so compelling.

Switching gears’the trail system at Philadelphia Zoo is an incremental innovation from the concept of rotational exhibits developed decades ago by the team of the Louisville Zoo and legendary designer, Jon Coe. Slowly, over the years, the idea of moving animals between yards has evolved into’ moving animals between yards via longer trails. Philadelphia Zoo has taken the idea to the extreme, optimizing their small urban site by providing larger exhibits in the form of elevated trails, oftentimes above guests’ heads. The success of the trail system is still anyone’s guess, and most criticism extends from the guests’ perspective. Will the guests’ be able to see the animals? Is it better to view the animal far overhead in a tunnel or up-close behind glass? Will the animals actually be more active? But one criticism I overheard recently touched on the aesthetics of the tunnels themselves: They look like steel tunnels.

Today, we’ve conditioned ourselves to expect a certain standard of naturalism in exhibit design. But here’s the rub: exhibits are never natural. We’ve always got handrails. We’ve almost always got visible barriers. Think about the huge new elephant enclosures being built all across the US. They’re big, beautiful, filled with water, grass, sand, topography, even trees. But all of them, every single one, at some point also have massive steel bollards and connecting steel cabling dotting the perimeter. The tunnels are simply another example of this visual contrast.

elephant at the smithsonian zoo

I actually have to disagree with myself. I don’t think elephant barriers and the tunnels are the same at all. Sure, the tunnels were borne out of necessity, much like the bollards and cables. They allow the least expensive, most flexible and secure means of building thousands of feet of elevated trails. But, to me, they are vastly different. For one, they’re sculptural. Their graceful curving lines are visually pleasing. The contrast of ordered steel against natural vegetation draws the eye. Their interruption of the visual field brings focus to the animals inside. The bollards and cables’ interruption of the visual field simply reminds us of the need for barriers, and takes our eyes away from the elephants themselves.

Furthermore, the concept of a restrictive tunnel is in direct contrast to the concept of large, expansive exhibits. But, really, do animals need large expansive spaces? Do they just desire room to roam in any form? And do these tunnels provide that successfully, despite the contradictory experience they bring to what we think of as a typical zoo experience? It’s the unexpected–the juxtaposition–that draws our attention.

But let’s remember this: naturalistic exhibits were once the unexpected, the unique, the thing that stood out at the zoo. And now they’re everywhere. What does that mean for zoo trails?

cheetah cubs at smithsonian zoo

Images: Tiger crossing and video kind courtesy Philadelphia Zoo, Elephant and cheetah cubs Smithsonian’s National Zoo.