Designing a Zoo That Meets Needs of Animals, Children

Kornman is a free-lance writer who lives in Los Angeles.

Keeping tarantulas cool was not something architects John Grist and Ara Zenobians had ever had to plan for in their work on Southland hotels, shopping centers and upscale homes.

But they were hired to be flexible, think simple and work fast on what would be the most primitive-looking project in their portfolio--the new Los Angeles children's zoo, which opens Friday at 10 a.m.

"It was a stretch in one sense," Grist said recently as workers prepared Adventure Island for the arrival of its first tenants. "We had to do a lot of research, but architects being the egotists that they are, think they can do anything."

The $8.3-million job was complicated by the fact that the zoo's future occupants couldn't help the architects with the design. So the architects had to poll the zoo's in-house experts before they could sit down at the drawing board.

And this was to be a zoo that doesn't look like a zoo.

It had to incorporate an aviary, tide pool, petting zoo, an animal nursery built hacienda style, high-tech interactive devices, an outdoor theater for animal performances, a cave built into a mountain, a fast-food restaurant and bathrooms.

The project would be built across four distinct biomes, or habitats, (mountain, meadow, desert, shoreline) that seem to flow from one to the other in a 2.5-acre corner of the Los Angeles Zoo, which is located in Griffith Park near the interchange of the Golden State (5) and Ventura (134) freeways.

The architects had to find ways to accommodate features they had never used in their previous work: A wired-for-sound mountain lion hopscotch game--with squares having real paw prints cast in bronze--on a busy pathway and a scary (but not too scary) vampire bat imaging device inside the cave that seems to move the bats from one stalactite to another, within reach of young visitors.

Every phase of the project, from planning to completion, was monitored by the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Assn., which raised the budget from donations. The largest gift, $3 million, was provided by the Weingart Foundation.

Architect Riener Nielsen, who usually designs hotels and upscale homes, had no zoo experience when he was hired by GLAZA as project manager, to serve as both buffer and trouble-shooter on the project. Getting it off the ground was the hardest part.

Ground Broken in July

"For this project," Nielsen said, "there's no comparison to cost relationships like there would be for a hotel or an office building, where you would have dollars per square foot. We needed to get subcontractors on board early to define it and verify the pricing."

Ground breaking was last July, after the deteriorating original children's zoo, built in 1963, was demolished.

The project, the largest in the zoo's history, was nearly a full-time challenge for the architects.

"There were weeks Ara lived over there," Grist said. "There were phone calls by the hour every day."

Although the project was a melding of complex relationships, Zenobians said he tried to keep all structures generically Southwestern and simple, with few flourishes.

"I don't believe a building should be complicated to be nice," he said. "I believe in simplicity very much. I go to basic design that can be appreciated by all people."

The need to put safety first for human visitors and animal occupants required extensive reworking of some of the plans.

Scaled for Youngsters

Adjustments were made in "window coverings" for outdoor habitats to restrain the animals comfortably and keep visitors at a safe distance, but close enough to enable even toddlers to see the creatures up close.

Step-ups were added in front of exhibits to give smaller children a better view, and some facade work was designed especially to bring adult-scale buildings down to a comfortable level for young visitors.

But there was the occasional gentle conflict between builder and zookeeper.

The fencing at the petting zoo, or hacienda, looks like wood but is made from textured concrete. Zoo Director Warren Thomas was concerned that the animals would chew on the concrete posts and hurt themselves, but a decision was reached to go with concrete anyway.

Grist thought air-conditioning the tarantulas seemed ridiculous. "They seem to do very well in the desert without it," he said. But Thomas explained that life in captivity is stressful to spiders and that air conditioning is essential to their survival.

Fancy technology is scattered throughout the zoo to make each visit an interactive adventure. It was created by ex-Disney wizards who formed their own Burbank-based company, Art & Technology, which uses contemporary technology to design and build educational devices for zoos and amusement parks.

Stimulate Senses

Adventure Island's 20-plus interactive devices are intended to amuse both children and adults and stimulate a variety of senses, said Art & Technology's Joe Garlington.

One device inside the cave will let visitors see a lifelike Betty White--the actress and animal lover--in three dimensions and in miniature, explain how and why skunks stink.

In the Little House Under the Prairie, also inside the cave, children will see a cross section of a prairie dog burrow outfitted with three-dimensional models defining each prairie dog "room."

Art & Technology also created a series of "photo spots," humorous, colorful bas-reliefs that will allow children to pose in life-size fantasies scattered throughout Adventure Island.

At one, a giant vulture bears down on a rock slab. When a child has his picture taken, he'll look like he's being attacked by the bird. Another provides a photo opportunity with a snake and a third will give children a chance to "hang" like a bat. You turn the snapshot upside down for this one.

In addition to the white stucco hacienda-style petting zoo, nursery and Southwestern-flavored Greek theater, Grist and Zenobians also drew the plans for the earthquake-safe concrete bunker that is the firm foundation for the mountain/cave at the entrance to Adventure Island, located past the gift shop in the regular zoo.

The cement-and-steel structure, fine-tuned by structural engineer Grossman & Speer, not only came up to city code, but it's so solid, Grist said, that "when the bomb comes, where you want to be is in that cave. The footings are higher than me, and I'm 5-foot-8. It's built like Ft. Knox."

The rugged-looking mountain with a wet and dry cave inside it was crafted with dental tools, spray-painted and fitted inside with a dripping slime wall by the Larson Co., a Tucson-based design and construction firm that builds grottoes for millionaires in the South of France, waterfalls in Japan, water hazards for golf courses and naturalistic habitats for zoos.

The landscape of Adventure Island was designed to enhance the various habitats and make the zoo animals feel at home, but also to conserve water and guarantee low maintenance.

Plants and trees selected for the site had to be nontoxic to children and zoo animals, and had to blend in with the overall architectural design.

The job was done for $120,000 by Jon David Cicchetti Landscape Architect of Long Beach and Irvine, which specializes in using native and ornamental plants "to create (a) natural environment, whatever it happened to be."

"The idea was to have these zones--mountain, desert, meadow--but at the same time have the zones come off as a total landscape," Cicchetti said.

In spite of the complexity of this project and the push to finish it by spring, Grist and Zenobians said building Adventure Island was very enjoyable.

"We feel it was a very successful collaboration or it would not have come together as quickly or as cleanly as it did," Grist said.

"I'd like to do another zoo."

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