Katharina Swoboda: Zoological Architecture and Empty Frames


1 intro


2 living images


3 framing as praxis


4 architecture


5 frames within frames


6 nozootopia


7 references

As the literature shows, from sixteenth-century menageries to immersive zoo environments today, animal enclosures communicate contemporary assessments of animals and nature (Baratay and Hardouin-Fugier 2002). Remarkably, within this research field the specific architecture of zoos had not been investigated until recently (Meuser 2017). Architecture theorist Natascha Meuser defines zoo architecture as a peculiar type of building that is fundamentally differentiated from human housing. New technologies, materials, and the zeitgeist are determining factors for all building activities, but zoo architecture also indicates the prevailing human understanding of the animal.


According to Meuser, major technological advancements paired with social change over the past 150 years led to five typological phases of zoo architecture: (1) colonial-style facilities in the nineteenth century, (2) fenceless buildings from 1900, (3) functional and modern zoo buildings starting with the First World War, (4) landscaping from the 1970s onwards, (5) the general architectural concepts and branding of contemporary zoos. In particular, the introduction of the fenceless zoo in the early twentieth century marks an important change, when Carl Hagenbeck popularised illusionistic displays and employed hidden pits then visible fences. This drift has developed into today immersive zoo ‘experiences’ (May 2020). Here, the zoo design positions visitors and animals in the same environment and evokes the impression of a shared site, with carefully hidden barriers. Today, a European urban zoo typically merges several styles, because of later construction and amendments. This mixed architecture connects different periods and later per­spectives on animals.


I have been intrigued by the modern and functional period. Lubetkin and Tecton represent this phase distinctly. After their success with their enclosures in London, the group designed various buildings at Dudley Zoo, close to Birmingham (1936–37). I visited the zoo in 2014 and found the Tecton buildings mostly empty and, at that time, in ruins. Following media reports, serious restoration efforts have subsequently been carried out; however, back when I encountered the rather neglected sites, grass and mud were creeping over the modernist constructions. After I left the rather depressing site, I met a very friendly artisan at the zoo entrance. We talked and then I shot the video Reconstructing Z. It shows the renovation of the wooden, oversized letter Z from the word Zoo on the facade of the entrance to Dudley Zoo. In the 1970s the zoo management adapted the original typography following contemporary taste, the artisan told me. And his job was to return it to its original proportions. This Z reminds me of the prominent ‘ZOO’ lettering in Peter Greenaway’s film A Zed and Two Noughts (1985). Here the zigzagging letter is displayed regularly throughout the narrative and in the film the Z becomes a visual code for the zoo as such. 

Cultural heritage listing means that protected architecture must be maintained intact. This can cause great problems for zoos, when their aged facilities fail to meet contemporary standards for animal shelter. But in the case of the letter, no animals were harmed during the process of conservation. 

click on image to play video

Katharina Swoboda, Reconstructing Z

video, hd, colour, 5min, 2014


“Reconstructing Z”, shows the restoration of the wooden, oversized letter “Z” on the modernist facade of the entrance of Dudley Zoo in the West Midlands in England. The original entrance was built in 1937. In the 1970s the typography of the “Zoo” lettering was adapted to taste at that time. During the course of the restoration, Dudley Zoo aims to correct these historical marks.

Zoo architecture oscillates in its appearance between the stage and prison