May 28, 2019

Edmonton zoo visitors interact with animals and habitats on their home turf

UCalgary Across Alberta: School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape prof, alumni give Children’s Precinct a makeover
Edmonton zoo visitors interact with animals and habitats on their home turf
Edmonton zoo visitors interact with animals and habitats on their home turf Marc Boutin Architectural Collaborative

The Edmonton Valley Zoo’s redevelopment of its Children’s Precinct is a massive capital improvement project, and a delightfully remarkable one. Led by the Marc Boutin Architectural Collaborative, the project has already received two national awards for conservation leadership, environmental stewardship and education. The first phase is already open to visitors, and the second phase opens in two years.

Marc Boutin is an architect, principal of MBAC, and has been a professor with the University of Calgary’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape for more than 20 years. His architecture studio is almost completely made up of alumni from the faculty, and their team is designing incredible public places across Canada, as well as four projects in Edmonton, including the new zoo.

The City of Edmonton is a progressive municipality. Boutin says, “Edmonton is an amazing place to create architecture given they commission work based on design excellence and their project delivery system is responsive and comprehensive. Edmonton has a vision of how architecture can contribute to the quality of life and the building of a great city.”

The zoo’s immersive experience was designed from a child’s eye view, with “play” as the primary way for visitors to learn about animals, their habitats and their homes.

Four layers define the experience: Under, Between, On, and Above. Visitors will be able to explore landscapes as they are engaged by animals and play through habitats. Architectural features throughout encourage visitor interaction and movement, creating magical moments “where a single species can be engaged through a series of experiential fields, rather than from a single vantage point,” Boutin explains.

“This design approach emphasizes the connections between humans and animals as ‘bodies in space,’ rather than grouping species according to their geographic origins, thus fostering an interspecies connection that is rooted in empathy built through shared experience.” This design approach considers the importance of immersion as a way to enhance the educational value of exhibits, while improving the animals’ living conditions.

“The idea of a child’s geography, where imagination takes hold and reality takes a back seat to wonder, is another fundamental concept embedded in the design. For this, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are,” comments Elsa Lam, editor of Canadian Architect magazine.

A child’s geography is an experiential, emotional map that lasts long into the future; in this zoo, the map is made up of moments when the child engages with habitats and animals, and these perceptions proportionally chart a memory of experience.

“In addition, parallel play opportunities will buttress the visitor’s imagination by providing moments of adrenaline, during which one can pretend to be one of the animals by mimicking similar physical acts. A child can climb in the net play and pretend to be a gibbon, or cross the canopy walk between the aviaries and imagine life as an exotic bird or tamarin.”

By creating open, boundaryless interactions, children will have a chance to learn not just about themselves and their interconnectedness with the systems around them. They will leave with lasting memories.