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The Zoo That Will Swap the Roles of Humans and Animals

I spoke to architect Bjarke Ingels about making the world a little more like our dreams.

Amelia Abraham

Amelia Abraham

Plans for Zootopia. All photos courtesy of BIG.

As anyone who's been to Zoolates will tell you, it is animals in captivity that need to be protected by humans – not the other way around. Danish architect Bjarke Ingels' latest project is promising to do just that: His redesign of the Givskud Zootopia in the Danish town of Billund is looking to invert the concept of a normal zoo by letting the animals roam free, while humans remain hidden in mirrored capsules or cable cars.

The press has so far been largely celebratory of Zootopia, albeit a little dubious with the Guardian calling it “a Truman Show for animals, or a feral version of Hunger Games. To me it just sounds like a good way of saving tigers from being bathed in beer and penguins from having to swim with drunk naked men.

I called up Ingels to find out more about his Zootopian vision.

VICE: Hi Bjarke, what drew you to the zoo project?
Bjarke Ingels: I think one of the things that really caught my attention was the idea that this zoo was based on a philosophy of having only social animals. A lot of people associate zoos with a lonesome tiger encaged in a small box going nuts from boredom and claustrophobia and I think when you have a social zoo you can actually have a big group of animals living together in a habitat that resembles their normal habitat. That sounded like an interesting starting point because it means that as a visitor you'd find yourself way outnumbered by the animals and not the other way around.

Bjarke Ingels

How else will this differ to a normal zoo?
The zoo’s ambition was to try to be a place where visitors don’t notice the barriers between them and the animals. So you’re at this tipping point between the feeling of intimacy and the need for safety and security. Some of the barriers we can incorporate in the water for instance, by making sure that the boats stay on the side that is too deep for the animals to cross. There are all kinds of other landscape tricks to make various types of barriers.

In old English landscape architecture there was something called the Ha-Ha, which is a series of seamless level changes that make the natural landscape gradually slope and hit a wall that is invisible from within. There was some Lord who liked to sit and have tea on his estate overlooking the beautiful landscape with the cattle grazing on the horizon, but of course he didn’t want the bulls to come up and chase his wife.

So the main challenges of course is to really design the zoo in a way that the enclosure is still there, it's just not visible. We also want to eliminate all traces of man-made architecture; no round African huts or Chinese pagodas. Without this romantic, nostalgic, vernacular architecture we can integrate the architecture into the landscape so that any blatant evidence of human presence is gone. Like camouflage.

Plans for Zootopia

The zoo is a 300-acre plot. How will guests explore the space?
I think one of the main innovations in the zoo experience has been the car safari, where you could take the car that you drive to work in and drive between lions. It’s this surreal clash of something incredibly familiar and something highly exotic. We’re organising the car safari as a loop that frames all of the park so from the car you can get sort of an overview and experience of all the animals across the globe.

And then returning to the central crater you can engage with the three different worlds; America from the cable cars, Africa on the bicycle and then Asia on the water bikes. So that crater becomes the gateway into these three different worlds and at certain points you can stop and get off and explore on foot as well. 

You were thinking of prototyping mirrored pods; It creates a really beautiful, sci-fi image. 
It's a bit like a ski resort. The ski lifts have these capsules that you can pull over to protect yourself from the wind and the snow. So we looked to see if maybe a similar element could be adapted to protect a vehicle so that visitors could blend in with the surroundings.

Plans for Zootopia

Has the concept of the zoo changed over the years?
Zoos used to be really important for science and education when people couldn’t travel. Now you have film, television and inexpensive air fares that allow a lot of people to actually see animals for themselves. So part of the role of the zoo has disappeared. Hopefully Zootopia can be a really exciting contribution to the zoo experience – maybe one that makes it more interactive.

Did you encounter any difficulties when designing Zootopia?
My firm's done tons of housing and condos for humans but to actually have a completely new set of species to design for is quite interesting because different animals have completely different behaviour. Some animals can actually be contained with very simple measures whereas other animals are sort of Houdinis and can escape from almost anything, so the measures required to contain them vary dramatically.

Leading an architectural firm in your mid thirties is rare – it usually takes a long time to train and build up to these big commissions. What do you think it was that made you so successful in the industry so young? 
I much appreciate you saying mid thirties, I’m turning 40 on the 2nd of October. Conventionally, you say that you get good at architecture as you get old and I think that there is always this chicken and the egg, catch-22 dilemma that you can’t be awarded a skyscraper until you have already built a skyscraper. I was fortunate to get to take on rather large challenges at an early stage; for example I could show you some of our work coming up in Manhattan, which is this 900,000 sq foot hybrid between a skyscraper and a courtyard, we call it a ‘court scraper’. That’s going to be an incredibly striking silhouette on the Manhattan skyline. 

Ingels' plans for Lower Manhatten's flood resiliency measures

I don’t know if I have a recipe that works, but I think one thing that distinguishes us from our colleagues is that sometimes architecture is either professional practical consultants who make buildable but predictable boxes, or at the other extreme, an expressive avant-garde that is both wildly expensive and highly impractical. I think what we’ve tried to do, in a banal way, is to be, what we’ve called, "pragmatic utopian" to actually take a very practical approach to architecture and let the life that’s going to happen in it to be the actual driving force. What makes our buildings look different is that they perform differently.

Like your ski slope in Copenhagen. What can you tell me about that?
It’s a power plant in Copenhagen where you can ski on the roof. It resolves one of the main challenges of this kind of public infrastructure; you need it in the middle of a city because you need the power, but you don’t want to have big ugly boxes that cast shadows and block the views. By turning it into a public amenity it suddenly becomes a win-win situation and the neighbours actually embrace it.

Normally, you would get a protest about building a power plant in somebody’s back yard but in this case we’ve got emails from people asking when it was going to open because they were looking forward to skiing or climbing or hiking. In that sense, I think we’re always looking for that unexplored opportunity that is both incredibly rational and feels almost fantastic.

Ingel's ski slope incinerator building

I think I heard you describe it as "hedonistic sustainability". Do you think Copenhagen as a city embodies that kind of mentality?
Ninety nine percent of the buildings are probably quite ordinary. But there’s something called the Round Tower in downtown Copenhagen, which was built because the King liked to look at the stars. They made a tower that is like one long spiralling ramp so you can ride your horse from the street all the way to the top of the observatory without dismounting. I love it as an idea because architecture is not about repeating something that was right or wrong but about coming up with ideas of how we’d really like to live. Of course in the case of the King, he can do whatever he wants. But I think it should be the same for everyone.

Architecture should be about making the world a little bit more like our dreams. If documentary is about describing the world as it is, architecture is about creating the possibility of something new. The beauty of architecture is that it then turns fiction into fact, just like that round tower.

When you first tell people about your plans to build a ski slope power on a power plant, they don't really believe you. But when it’s complete in two years, it is going to be a fact about Copenhagen. You know, in Venice you can sail through flooded streets in a gondola, and in Copenhagen you can ski on power plants. It’s going to be a fact about the world.

It must feel pretty cool to be the person who created that fact. 
You know that’s the power of architecture. You’ve just got to remember to use it and not make more of the same and to keep challenging yourself to make the world even more exciting.

@MillyAbraham

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