Last month, the Parc Zoologique de Paris reopened after a six-year renovation by Bernard Tschumi Architects. A branch of the National Museum of Natural History, it is commonly referred to as the Zoo de Vincennes, because it is located in the Bois de Vincennes, a 2,459-acre park on the city’s east side. When the zoo opened in 1934, it was notable for presenting the animals without cages, in a semblance of their natural environment. Tschumi was tasked with maintaining this philosophy, and with preserving such landmark features as the Grand Rocher, a 215-foot artificial mountain. Today, the park is home to more than 180 species from around the globe, including piranhas, lemurs, penguins, and a lion named Nero.
The situation you found was a rather idiosyncratic zoo, as I understand it.
Bernard Tschumi, FAIA: In 1934, the French opened this zoo, which had a few interesting characteristics, like those huge artificial rocks. Unfortunately, the zoo was not very well maintained and about six years ago, it had to close and to be completely reformulated, both for biological reasons—the concept of a zoo has completely changed—and also for security reasons. The place had become really dangerous.
Both for the animals and for the people, I take it.
Exactly. Some of the artificial rocks were falling on the heads of people and animals. The Museum of Natural History, which is in charge of the zoo, decided to organize a competition between three large general contractors. One of them, called Bouygues, called me and said: “Would you like to be our architect?” And so we started to work for a little bit with them, and we were selected, and then we started to work for real.
It’s not exactly the world’s largest zoo. It seems fairly compact.
Absolutely. You make a very good point. It’s about 45 acres. That means that certain animals, elephants for example, are not there, because elephants need too much space. So the species were selected in relationship to the amount of space that they had at their disposal.
You felt that the architecture for the people and the animals
should be the same, as much as possible, rather than there being one
system for each.
Correct. The idea was not trying to make a sort of architectural acrobatics for people and a different thing for the animals, but rather, to look for common denominators. In a zoo, by definition, you’re going to have aviaries. You’re going to have tropical greenhouses. There are also a lot of technical buildings—places where the animals sleep and eat. They are fairly utilitarian buildings, especially considering the budget that we had. So for these, I developed a system of screens, continuing my own interest on the idea of double envelopes. Here we have a functional envelope and a visual envelope, the latter of which is made of wooden beams that are organized in a sort of random disorder so that they become a very informal background to the nature.
The first thing I thought was: “Bernard Tschumi has gone wild.”
I am used to your work having a rather rigorous order to it, and I
couldn’t think of another project where you had used such apparent
Well, I think you got it right. Everything was worked on using the most rigorous conceptual development, and we arrived at minimalist solutions, but this time the intention was to arrive at a design which would be a background, not a foreground. Much of the idea of a zoo is about a landscape, it’s what zoo people call biozones. For example, the planting—which was done by a very interesting landscape architect named Jacqueline Osty—tries to find a species of trees that looked like the Sahara, that looked like the tropics, like Patagonia. In other words, it’s re-creating a sort of ecosphere and so the architecture had to voluntarily take a back seat. But I also was interested in the notion of the double envelope, where one is functional and the other is the visual envelope and that one is the one which is random and disorderly.
Since you started from this notion that the visual language for
people and the animals should be the same, did that sort of indicate
that where they met was in a zone that was not the kind of logic-ordered
zone of the urban environment?
It’s rather an environment that would displace you somehow. Whether you are a person or an animal, when you go to places—whether it’s the restaurant or the house of the rhinos—they are actually using the same architectural components. I was trying to say that there’s no such thing as an architecture which is 4,000 years of history, which is the architecture of humans, and then there’s another sort of shelters for animals, which are also preconceived ideas. I was trying to avoid that in both cases.
What does it say, conceptually, that the rhino enclosure and the
restaurants are the same? It seems to go back to the idea of your
Follies—this notion that similar forms can address or host different
It’s interesting you say this. Who knows? The Follies were a highly elaborate work of elements that were almost like a construction game. The zoo itself is much freer, much more random. The Follies are really markers—they articulate the space around them, while at the zoo, it’s exactly the opposite. Each of the random wooden envelopes are there, not to activate the space, but rather to define it as a background. So it’s an anti-La Villette, with a few conceptual points in common.
It seems that the objects at the zoo shift and change themselves, depending on their function as well as their situation.
The aviary structures are quite important because a lot of animals—small mammals, monkeys, or birds—are in aviaries. Even small children are in aviaries that are used for education. The entrance of the zoo is, itself, like a very large aviary for the visitors. These structures do have a lot in common with the Follies—it’s a combination of parts that give you an incredible variety of geometries.
The greenhouse seems to be a bit outside of this system because
its form and skin are unified. It is an object, a very clear object.
Yes, I would agree with you. Absolutely. The greenhouse is slightly different—the enormous size of it, over 300 feet long, 75 to 80 feet high, means that the cost factor becomes such that you then have to totally rationalize the amount of material that you have in order to make it as efficient as possible. So that’s not surprising that we find geometries, which are not that different from some that were invented in the 19th century. The only difference here, the glass is curved—cold curved. It’s simply … it’s forced into place and, of course, it’s using all of the most up-to-date cooling and warming systems that one can do with greenhouses today, but the plate is not quite the same as what I discussed earlier with the aviaries and with the wooden slats. The thing they do have in common is the relationship between each of the small aviaries and the larger greenhouse. The small aviaries are just like fragments that are thrown into the landscape, some that go inside the greenhouse, some that stay scattered on the outside. And the scale shift between the main aviary, which is a huge area, and the small—and between this huge greenhouse and the small aviaries—I find a very interesting sort of correlation.
Zoos are, by their nature, didactic educational institutions.
How do you address that, when so much of your work here has been about
discoveries and layering, rather than the kind of didactic exposition of
Well, amusingly enough, when I got the commission, I thought of the new Acropolis Museum and I felt uneasy: Isn’t having giraffes in a zoo, away from their natural home, the same as having the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum? And then I realized, first of all, regarding the giraffes, these giraffes had been in Paris for about eight generations—they were probably more Parisian than most of the people looking at them. Secondly, I think the intent of trying to show the animal in as close as possible to their native environment is a way to make people aware of how fragile that environment is. It has more to do with education than with event making.
You talk about the double skin, and you use that in places like
the giraffe housing. But you also seem to be exploring the concept of
filters, which seem to operate as an alternative to the double skin
Well, the two work together. If you have a double or triple skin, some of the surfaces, some of the membranes can be absolutely opaque, waterproof, or airproof, while some others can be porous. Some let the light through, some stop the light, some filter the light. So, each of these envelopes at the zoo has its own characteristic and that you play with. The materiality of the envelope is quite important to me, in order to establish its character and its conceptual presence.
I have to ask: Did you go to zoos as a child?
Yes, in particular to this zoo as a little child. You know, I lived in Paris until about age 6 or 7 and the zoo had an incredible rock called the Monkey’s Rock—and boy, did I love it. As you see, it’s a full urban zoo. It’s a zoo where you hear sirens and garbage trucks. It’s quite big still.
And did you go to other zoos to prepare for this?
Yes, I went to a few zoos, but I also read a fantastic book called Constructions Animales by Bruno Corbara. It’s someone who wrote the interesting treatise about how different species of animals build their nest or their burrow. It absolutely fascinated me to discover that animals, like architects, make a distinction between tabula rasa and genius loci, and you can distinguish animal construction by that division. You realize how much building, to animals, has to do with seduction and seducing your other mates, which I thought was very appropriate to architecture. —Aaron Betsky