Sunday, April 18, 2021

Designing for bears, dogs, lemurs, humans, and other living things

by Judith Rubin

In 2007, the Saint Louis Zoo mounted a $120M capital campaign, setting in motion a series of major changes and expansions, unfolding through 2017. A 10-year rollout is nothing unusual for this prestigious, Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited zoo, where large-scale changes entail a lengthy journey from visioning and master plan, through fundraising, bidding, fine-tuning and construction.

Saint Louis-based JCO was awarded the planning, design and execution contract for three projects at the Zoo. The 10-acre River’s Edge, reconfigured with three new animal habitats, opened in June 2014. The revamp of The Living World welcome center has gradually uncapped new features including retail, food, cinema and classroom space. And the original Elephant House (circa 1918) – it hasn’t housed elephants in many years but served a range of other purposes – reopened in 2008 as Peabody Hall, a dedicated, 5,000-square-foot space for traveling exhibitions.

JCO founder Jumana Brodersen, a former creative director with Busch Entertainment Corp. (now SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment) put all her professional background, and her company’s skillset, into play for these projects. From her years with Busch, she had gained the operator’s perspective along with the ability to design for people, animals and exhibits, and the ability to reconcile vision with the realities and challenges of budget, timeline and construction. These combined with her knack for envisioning a creative solution beyond the initial expectations and getting others to see it, too.

Purina Painted Dog Preserve comes to River’s Edge

The approach to Purina Painted Dog Preserve takes visitors into an octagonal viewing hut immersing them in the midst of the exhibit with unobstructed views through floor-to-ceiling glass. Photo: Saint Louis Zoo.
The approach to Purina Painted Dog Preserve takes visitors into an octagonal viewing hut immersing them in the midst of the exhibit with unobstructed views through floor-to-ceiling glass. Photo: Saint Louis Zoo.

“What’s ultimately the goal of this project? What is the essence of this project? If this project were a 30-second commercial, what would it be? You go back to the parameters,” says Brodersen. “For River’s Edge, the goals included more animals, enriched animal habitats and enhanced guest experience, as well as improved animal care, infrastructure and operational efficiency.”

“River’s Edge is this big, immersion exhibit with a loop trail,” said David McGuire, AIA William Bernoudy Vice President Architecture and Planning, Saint Louis Zoo. “The donut hole in the middle was where we planned upgraded facilities for Andean Bear Range. We also wanted to expand the Sun Bear Forest, with space to build out for one more animal in the future. Being in the business as long as she has, Jumana recognized how to make the process more efficient at the front end. She was instrumental in helping us make the leap to go outside the original plan.”

Collaborating with Zoo executive staff including McGuire and Jack Grisham, Vice President, Animal Collections, the team exceeded original goals for populating River’s Edge with more animals – adding the new Purina Painted Dog Preserve – and realizing capital and operating cost efficiencies by supporting all three exhibits with one shared, main animal management area. A bonus result was that the Red Pandas, which had been behind the scenes at the Zoo, were relocated to the former Sun Bears area, coming into public view for the first time in their new, larger habitat.

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Collaboration of this kind is key to keeping things fresh at the Saint Louis Zoo. “It serves an institution best to work with a variety of design professionals who have animal experience as well with strong support teams to bring fresh approaches to this unique business,” says McGuire.

The Living World and Peabody Hall

The Peabody Hall exterior was authentically restored to its original 1918 charm and beauty. The JCO design team and the Zoo worked closely with preservationists. Photo by Roger Brandt, courtesy Saint Louis Zoo.
The Peabody Hall exterior was authentically restored to its original 1918 charm and beauty. The JCO design team and the Zoo worked closely with preservationists. Photo by Roger Brandt, courtesy Saint Louis Zoo.

“The client’s goal for The Living World was to create a 21st Century zoo arrival experience to start visitors off right, and create positive first impressions,” said Brodersen.

The Living World occupies a 40,000-square-foot building at the north entrance of the Saint Louis Zoo, brings together many elements for welcoming and serving the homo sapiens who visit. An important aspect is the completely redesigned Welcome Center, where Zoo staff help guests plan their visits and purchase tickets. There are also expanded retail and food offerings, special events space, classroom space, the Monsanto education gallery, and digital cinema, plus offices for Human Resources, Marketing and Education.

Some design reconfigurations were implemented when an analysis of guest numbers showed the likelihood of a crowd-flow bottleneck at the entrance, and questions came up about the accommodations for traveling exhibitions.

A sense of arrival: The expansive new welcome center at The Living World at the north entrance to the Saint Louis Zoo. JCO rendering courtesy Saint Louis Zoo.
A sense of arrival: The expansive new welcome center at The Living World at the north entrance to the Saint Louis Zoo. JCO rendering courtesy Saint Louis Zoo.

The exhibition hall was relocated to the former Elephant House, now completely renovated as Peabody Hall. “Having the traveling exhibition space at the front gate was not ideal, and Jumana helped us realize that,” said McGuire. This, in turn, solved the bottleneck issue, freeing up 4,000 square feet at The Living World entrance and facilitating the design of a truly inviting orientation space that does full justice to one of Brodersen’s favorite phrases: “a sense of arrival.”

In collaboration with OWH Architects, JCO delivered an interior renovation of The Living World that is versatile, accessible and airy, and expected to be fully complete by the end of 2014.

Madagascar and MOBOT

The Florida Aquarium in Tampa brought in JCO for a boutique project: Journey to Madagascar, a new themed, immersive environment on its upper level. Ring-tailed lemurs are the stars of the show, with supporting exhibits of amphibians and insects also from Madagascar. JCO’s design scope included the public spaces and the holding areas, collaborating closely with Director of Exhibits & Graphic Design Pete Colangelo, and the animal care specialists at the Aquarium. “Because of the animals’ specific needs in terms of space, feeding, care and comfort when they are out of public view, designing the holding areas can be a more intricate task than designing the guest areas,” noted Brodersen. Journey to Madagascar opened in spring 2014.

For the Missouri Botanical Garden (MOBOT) in Saint Louis, JCO was awarded (via RFP process) the contract to re-imagine the Brookings Interpretive Center, an existing 4,500-square foot building adjacent to the Climatron, a tropical greenhouse and guest favorite especially during the colder months. Expected to open in late 2015, the Center is being gutted and updated with a spread of educational exhibits and interactives designed to extend exploration and learning. “The new, family-friendly, digitally-equipped, year-round space will be configurable for multiple purposes,” says Brodersen. “Being among the plants at the Garden evokes a sense of beauty and curiosity. The Center will augment that with relevant, changing themes and programs networked to the larger community. Guests will have many options to actively participate and create their own content.” Brodersen is working closely with MOBOT’s internal engineering and education departments on the project.  • • •

JCO (www.thejco.com) creates immersive environments for theme parks, water parks, amusement parks, zoos, aquariums and marine mammal parks around the world. Services include themed entertainment master planning, attraction design and animal habitat design. 

Martin Palicki
Martin Palicki owns and publishes InPark Magazine. Started in 2004, InPark Magazine provides owners and operators the perspective from "in"side the "park." Martin has also written for publications like Sound & Communications, Lighting & Sound America, Attractions Management and others. Martin has been featured in Time Magazine, CNN.com and Folio. Martin lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA.

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