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On September 21, 2012, the Hungarian Cultural Centre of London and the Royal College of Art are teaming to present a symposium called ZOO-TOPIA. It’s a day-long investigation of the cultural and architectural significance of zoo design, held as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

I bring this up in part because I play a tiny, tiny part in the project. My translation of a minor poem by a major Hungarian poet — Weöres Sándor’s “Monkeyland” — is being included in the book of essays and artworks that will accompany the symposium.

But I also bring it up because I think the subject is fascinating. Though I’d never before given it any serious thought, now that the topic’s been raised I can’t stop turning it over in my head.

Here’s the brief description of the focus of the symposium, from the Cultural Centre’s website:

The ZOO-TOPIA symposium explores the display of architecture within zoological gardens, and zoos will be also considered in relation to the city, as psycho-geographical spaces of fantasy, and as sites of national representation.

I may be showing my age, but I have to admit: when I think of zoos, the first image that comes into my mind is the classic model from the Bad Old Days: great cats on one side, monkeys and apes on the other; somewhere in between, the bears or the reptile room… animals segregated by type, placed in separate cages or bare concrete enclosures, all for the supposed entertainment and enlightenment of the human visitors. Certainly that’s an image of a zoo that still appears in the movies and pop culture.

In fact, ethical zoo design is evolving beyond this model. Over the course of the twentieth century, the idea of the zoo underwent a major transformation. We began to realize that we couldn’t just treat living creatures like static displays in a museum… Doing so not only told us very little about the animals or their behaviour, but also had a terrible effect on their physical and psychological well-being.

In most major Western zoos, attempts have been made to accomodate the animals in a reasonable approximation of their own habitats. This has meant that designers and architects have needed to de-emphasize the elements in their plans that appealed solely to the aesthetic sense of the visitors, and become really clever at modeling nature while remaining practical in their design. That is, zoos have had to balance between being an expression of local and national identity… and being a model of the real, natural world — from which both nation and city have struggled for centuries to assert their independence.

In fact, the very idea of the zoo forces us to confront what it means to be human.

When we talk about “being human”, we mean several contradictory things. For example… on the one hand, there’s our existence as cultural beings, with our ability to speak, to write, to speculate about the future, to use the conditional tense; with our ability to consider our species’ place in the world (and even beyond it, in the universe as a whole); with our ability to create and appreciate things like art, design and architecture, or come up with such ideas as “national identity”.

On the other hand, there’s the sense of being human as being only human: being strictly biological creatures, frail in some respects and amazingly strong in others; fitting an evolutionary niche that has allowed us to survive and prosper — so far — yet still sharing kinship and a remarkable amount of genetic information with the chimp, the rabbit, the mouse… and other creatures we once thought so distant and separate from us.

If the classic zoo was an attempt to recontextualize the natural world — to bring it into the cultural framework of the city; to attempt to control it by recasting it into the terms of human culture — then looking back at the history of architecture and design in zoos should be eye-opening. It’s a way to examine the changes in our understanding of mankind’s position in nature. When we, in effect, create a zoo for zoos, we place ourselves in a unique vantage point: we observe ourselves observing.

We can see how the discovery of evolution and genetics has influenced our thinking on the relative standing of the zoo animal and the human visitor, and the way both are accomodated through design. We can investigate how the contributions of individual artists and architects, or the goals of aesthetic movements, have helped or hindered the practical purposes of zoos, and the care and treatment of the creatures in them. We can ask how the zoo as an architectual “site of national representation” impacts, e.g., the mountain gorilla in London, or the polar bear in Miami. We can see where we have succeeded in combining our need for “psycho-geographical spaces of fantasy” with the modern zoo’s commitment to science, conservation, and humane care… and where we have failed, since there are plenty of documented cases of dismal failure.

Of course, I have no idea if this kind of speculation has anything at all to do with the actual line-up of the symposium. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to attend to find out — there’s this pesky ocean in the way. But this whole line of thought fits so perfectly with my long-standing interest in animal welfare that I can’t help but think it will result in some new creative work down the road…

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