FRANKLIN PARK ZOO, BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS 1972-1989

Often, when asked to describe the breadth of the firm’s work, I will use a project type relevant to the person inquiring and bracket the other end with the zoo.  Not only is it an unusual project type, it also references the common refrain “from A to Z,” communicating a wide range of design capabilities. I hope one of the takeaways about the culture of the firm is the sheer variety of projects we have designed.  The early years of success are a testament of Tony Tappé’s connections, marketing skills, and design talent in the firm.

In my recent lunches with Tony, I have tried to gain some insight into his marketing expertise and he usually answers with a humble “we just went and won the job.”  But for this project, he articulated a specific strategy that led to winning the commission.  He first contacted Jerry Johnson, a former set designer who had led the multi-disciplinary exhibit design team at the Bronx Zoo.  Johnson’s approach of thinking of the zoo as a set design evolved into the trend of natural habitat zoos.  He agreed to be an exclusive consultant to Huygens and Tappé for exhibit design.  To this team, Tony added Weidlinger, a world renowned structural engineering firm and Cosentini, the leading mechanical engineering firm in the city.  This was the first time the office would work with these large firms, who would become frequent collaborators over the next 30 years.

BACKGROUND

Original Plan - 1911 Frederick Law Olmstead

The idea of a zoo in Franklin Park came from Frederick Law Olmstead himself.  In his original plan, “The Greeting,” a 3,000 foot long formal open space in the northeast corner of the park, was to be surrounded by facilities for public gathering, including a natural habitat zoo garden housing native species similar to the deer parks of European estates.  When the zoo formally opened in 1912, the design had departed from Olmstead’s original vision in that it included more exotic animals.  The zoo flourished initially and then fell into disrepair during the depression and World War II.  In 1958, the Metropolitan District Commission took over management of the zoo and began charging admission.  By the early 1970’s there was a desire to revitalize the zoo and hopefully the neighborhood around it.  The MDC issued an RFP for a master plan.

The program in the RFP established the following goals:

  • A new zoo for the New England region permitting the year-round exhibition of African wildlife in enclosed environments which resemble the animals’ natural habitat.
  • Exhibits are to be grouped according to the four major African ecologies: Desert, Tropical Forest, Veldt, and Bush Forest Region.
  • The Zoo will operate as an educational and research facility as well as a permanent wildlife and botanical exhibition.
  • Approximately 6.5 acres of animal exhibits are to be enclosed under roof. The program also included outdoor animal exhibition areas totaling approximately 14 acres adjacent to enclosed animal holding facilities to be provided within the exhibits enclosure.
  • An auditorium seating 250 persons, an administration building and a service complex for the zoo are also to be provided.  The RFP also stated that “The Greeting” should remain an open vista from gate to gate.

Three firms made the shortlist: Perry Dean and Rodgers, who had done a master plan for the zoo in 1967 and were considered to be the front runner; Cambridge Seven Associates, a multi-disciplinary practice known internationally for aquariums; and Huygens and Tappé, a design-centered practice with a strong consultant team and well known exhibit designer.  Asked in the interview what Huygens and Tappe’ knew about zoos, Tony’s reply was “absolutely nothing.” He went on to say that the team was good at listening and he looked to the zoo leaders and animal caretakers for their expertise on the animals.  He noted that the team was good at organization, planning and architecture and together they would make an outstanding project. Frank Zaremba, a project team member who joined Huygens and Tappé from Cambridge Seven after the selection, recounted a conversation he had with Dr. Richard Nagle, Director of the Zoo, while they were working on the project.  Evidently, Dr. Nagle preferred the collaborative approach over the “we are the experts” approach laid out by the other firms.

The new commission allowed the firm to expand, taking another bay in the Boylston Street office building and creating the “Zoo Room.”  Frank indicated that the team covered the wall with design studies.  Using pens and markers, Frank gave form and color to the ideas of Jerry Johnson.  He recalled that “Jerry was not facile with a pencil so he talked and I listened and drew.”

The “Zoo Room”

MASTERFUL COLLABORATION

The master plan that emerged from the Zoo Room would require key contributions from each of the team members.  The integration of large enclosed exhibits and complex circulation into an existing and historically significant American park was the prime challenge of the design.  Significant exhibit areas needed to be clear spanned.  African habitats—with corresponding temperature, humidity and light—had to be recreated in New England to be enjoyed on a year-round basis.

Early Concept Diagram

Early concept diagram showing pavilions, outdoor exhibit areas and pedestrian circulation paths.

The design solution proposed four large pavilions organized along “The Greeting”, leaving the long distance view unobstructed. The Greeting itself was seen as open range land for free roaming animals. Each pavilion was a translucent tent structure, the smallest covering 2/3 of an acre, the largest with 1.5 acres of indoor exhibit space.

Site Plan
Master Plan Model

Master Plan Model

The pavilions were to be connected by buried exhibit and service links containing circulation, small animal exhibits, and graphic displays.  Animal holding facilities were located at the perimeter of each pavilion, giving the animals direct access to indoor as well as outdoor exhibit areas arranged around the pavilions.  The rolling land of the park was extended by the earthen berms shielding from view, the animal holding facilities at the perimeter of each pavilion, making the transition from park to pavilion as natural as possible.

Interior Circulation

A STRUCTURAL SOLUTION

The pavilions, though different in size, used a modular structural system developed by Weidlinger engineers Minhaj Kirmani and Steve Varga that was based on the geometry of circles and segments of circles. Each circular tent module was spanned by three segmented steel bands, curved to meet at their apex, 65 feet above the ground. Steel cables, stressed between the bands and the circular concrete base, supported a Teflon-coated membrane roof. The base of each tent is a 30 foot wide underground ring containing animal holding and service facilities. The roof of this circular area acted as a compression ring, and was designed as a partly open concrete truss, allowing for ventilation and natural light in these spaces.

EXHIBIT APPROACH

This was designed as an all-weather zoo, where animals appear to live freely in their natural habitat in winter as well as in summer.  Enhancing this naturalistic exhibit approach, the pavilions were conceived as “non-buildings,” minimalist background structures that provided weather protection, while allowing maximum transmission of natural light for the growth of the large variety of plant material located within the enclosed exhibition areas.  Jerry Johnson conceived the foot path twists and turns to achieve maximum exhibition length, presenting the visitor with naturalistic features to confine views so that one cannot see other visitors in the distance. The exhibits were arranged to allow predators and prey to be seen together but safely separated by invisible barriers such as moats or glass panels.  Zoo visitors are separated from animals by similar means, while birds fly freely throughout the pavilion.

Section through “The Veldt,” the largest of the four pavilions

Plan detail of largest pavilion

Plan detail of the largest pavilion, showing animal holding areas at the perimeter ring and visitor circulation winding through the open exhibit space

Pen and Marker Illustrations

Elaborate pen and marker illustrations were drawn by Frank Zaremba to help convey the features of the naturalistic exhibits.

CREATING CLIMATE

Cosentini Associates, under Dick Leber’s leadership, was responsible the HVAC design.  Major air handling was by way of large air supply ducts under the visitor’s foot path, and exhaust fans at the apex of the tent.  Summer heat gain was dissipated mostly by natural convection through large operable roof panels at the top of the dome.  Therefore no air conditioning was installed in the exhibit space.  Much of the winter heat gain was retained within the mass of the naturalistic “landscapes,” contributing substantially to temperature stability during the night. And we think of “sustainability” as a recent phenomenon!  As this was one of the few fabric structures that had been built at the time, with performance relatively unproven, the ventilation system was designed to create a slightly negative interior air pressure to stabilize the fabric roof in high winds. We now know that it has survived almost thirty years which is a testament to the engineering and fabric technology.

WHAT TOOK SO LONG

I have often wondered about the timeline—almost twenty years from conception to occupancy—and Frank Zaremba was able to offer three main causes for the delays: politics, money, and geology.  Former Governor Michael Dukakis was a big proponent of the zoo.  It moved mostly in sync with his three administrations: 1975-79 and 1984-91.  The job was won in 1972 and the master plan cost estimate was 25 million dollars.  The rampant inflation of the 1970’s would later make one pavilion cost almost that much.  In 1978, with a phasing plan to build only the first pavilion and construction drawings nearly complete, geotechnical borings were taken on the site of the tropical forest pavilion, uncovering an underground river below.  The depth of the tropical forest exhibit excavation would have been dangerously close to the river cavern so the idea was floated to switch the site with the desert pavilion since that exhibit was a mostly flat floor.  This was how the project would proceed, but unraveling the integrated planning, exhibits, and site circulation of the master plan would impede further development.  In 1985, with Dukakis newly elected to a second term, the project was revived and the drawings completed for the tropical forest pavilion on the desert pavilion site and construction began.  The Tropical Rainforest Pavilion at the Zoo opened in 1989, shortly after I joined the firm.  It would prove to provide a short term boost to zoo attendance, but the lack of a consistent funding stream, neighborhood challenges, and leadership changes leaves the zoo searching to find its footing among greater Boston attractions.  Zoo New England, established in 1997 as a private corporation, is making progress with improved fund raising abilities and attention.

Giant rock formations of fiberglass reinforced concrete, with lush plantings and a generally humid atmosphere, recreate the ambiance of the rain forest. The visitors’ path and the landscapes are manipulated to make the building structure nearly invisible.

Photography and Graphics by DiMella Shaffer