richardwhitby.net

Resources to accompany an exhibition with Paradise Lost, 17th and 18th April 2010

The Bear Pit


19th century engraving of London Zoo's bear pits
Polar bears on the Mappin Terraces, London Zoo 1930s


The Mappin Terraces (present day) as the Australian outback


London's bear pit, with eye level bear post

Polar bear at London Zoo

Ruins of Berlin Zoo after Allied bombing in 1943

London Zoo, 2009

Sculpture at London Zoo, previously titled 'Stealing the Cubs', now untitled


Mappin Pavilion, which overlooks the terrace
Mappin Terraces, present day

The Aquarium, part of the Mappin Terraces
The Mappin Terraces 1990

Diagram of original design for Mappin Terraces

Constructing Mappin Terraces

Ruin of Berlin's osterich house, 1943

Traditional German bear castle
Crocodiles on a painted backdrop, London
Seven dead elephants at Berlin zoo, 1943


Ex-elephant house at London Zoo

'Exotic animal territories are compressed both semantically and syntactically in confinement. Ecosystems are jumbled together in the zoo, producing odd conjunctions of incompatible terms. Syntactically, ecosystems are compressed to mere fractions of their former scale. At the zoo, animal territories are condensed and overlapped within necessarily diminutive confines. We can argue concisely that the latter condensation is inevitable in nearly any landscape, given the gradual loss of non-managed ecosystems in the wild. Whether animal territory is condensed by the ‘external’ walls of development or the internal walls of the zoo is not a qualitative difference.
Bears are another classic though pedantic example to approach the alteration of behaviour under domestication. The rocking induced by captivity, similar to the familiar pacing of confined great cats, is in no way simply a matter of superseded failure in zoo architecture. Rather than culpable design, this is a genera problem in the reduction of animal territory. Even at London Zoo, in a highly sensitive recent renovation of the Mappin Terraces, we have the sad example of a female sloth bear who rocks incessantly at any closed door. Therapeutic measures which induce play can only divert and entertain the animal, but they do not seem to eliminate the perceived problem completely. Acclimatization is a traumatic process which takes time and provides no guarantees.
The connections of the zoo and the picturesque are familiar but critically unexplored. While oriental architecture and motifs are commonly appropriated in the zoo, this is normally ascribed to stylistic preference or the reaffirmation of political domination. There is more to it than that, however. While the maintenance of an exotic atmosphere, either naturalistic or cultural, has connotations, these are imbued throughout with an aesthetic preference of expansion in the face of disgust and danger.'
A Zoo Allegory

 


Gates to Carl Hagenbach's Animal Park, Hamburg

The buildings of a zoo bare the forms and designs from its previous incarnations, perhaps all the more apparent in this architectural purpose as the buildings are designed to house the specific forms and behaviours of a particular species and are often now used to house another.
Zoos not only bare the remains of older forms of entertainment (the formal garden, the freak-show) – they also bare those of past political situations and attitudes. In times of empire the zoological park was, like the museum, a demonstration of dominion; a collection of living spoils from war and conquest.

 


View of Mappin Terraces and Pavillion

'The Mappin Terraces are London Zoo’s largest and most prominent feature. They were built as ‘an installation for the panoramic display of wild animals’ in the form of artificial mountains. This ‘naturalistic’ approach to animal display, which derived from the work of Carl Hagenbeck in Hamburg, was intended to improve the living conditions for the animals and viewing conditions for the visitors.
The terraces are highly unconventional, in both constructional and architectural terms. Mitchell devised the basic arrangement, a three-tiered quadrant with hills, after being impressed by Continental panoramas, particularly one at Antwerp. Joass worked out the details and introduced Mappin, who did not live to see the completion of the project. Joass claimed the inspiration of a classical hillside amphitheatre, but this invocation has the ring of retrospective rationalisation.
Simulation of nature was also applied t the indoor display of smaller animals. The Aquarium tanks of 1923-4 were given elaborate rockwork and the Reptile House cages of 1926-7 were fastidiously landscaped, their back walls illusionistically painted by a theatrical scene artist as continuations of rockwork and planting. Such attempts to create an impression of nature clearly benefit the viewer more than the animal…The escape to an unfamiliar world that is part of the experience of any zoo was made more complete and, to the extent that it was ever troubled, the conscience was eased.'
The Buildings of London Zoo


A keeper, London Zoo, 19th century


'The most amusing bears on the Terraces are three elderly females, Gypsy, Hector and Nell, known generally as ‘The Three Bears’. They look like giant Teddy bears, and wear a placid and benevolent expression, but woe betide anyone who ventures into their home, for their good-natured appearance is nothing but a mask. They receive more buns than any other animals in the menagerie, because their appeal is irresistible as they sit in a row holding their toes and swaying from side to side in order to catch gifts in their mouths; and although nearly blind, not one of the trio ever misses a catch. In common with all bears, they have a very sweet tooth and iced cake is received with grunts of pleasure, while a tin of syrup or honey makes them frantic with joy. On sunless winter days Nell and Hector indulge their instinct to hibernate and only appear for a drink, but Gypsy is too confirmed a mendicant, and all the year round, wet or fine, she goes out to beg.
Susie was presented to the Zoo in 1927 by a party of Cambridge students who had lassoed her in Greenland, and Susie was then thought to be four years old. Captivity did not distress this Polar bear, and as soon as she was settled in her new home she sat up and asked the public to subsidise her rations, yet at heart she evidently cherished a longing to exterminate the human race, for the keepers find her as dangerous as any of the older specimens. That Susie is awaiting an opportunity to attack is obvious, because, no matter how much food is offered, as an inducement, she will never retire to her sleeping den when the keepers want to clean her outdoor cage, and therefore one man has always to remain on guard while the other sweeps.'
Around London's Zoo


Reptile cage being refurbished, London 2009

'The designer should not be too concerned about clearly understanding the distinction between reality and illusion that involves the blurred interface of the conscious and subconscious regions of the mind. Illusions are closely linked to emotions and to he lower levels of the psyche that harbour imagination, intuition, and dreams. Illusions can be catalysts for the creation of superb designs. We should admit to the existence of illusions, enjoy the visual puns that the mind and the eye create, understand their value, and consider their role and application in the design of a zoological exhibit.
The exclamation of dismay, “you have destroyed my illusion,” suggests that we may not only cherish an illusion but we may hope to gain important enlightenment from being its victim. Illusions, sometimes called errors of the senses and/or errors of the intellect, aid in the discovery of reality, understanding the normal and natural. They not only create a sense of enjoyment and attraction, but they can help sustain our search for knowledge and the key to reality.
Knowledge of the types of illusions may help create imaginative exhibits and also help the designer avoid the creation of illusions that cancel out each other’s effects...


Example of 'Desolation' style from 'Zoo Design'

Desolation
Step 1: Landscape Attributions
stark eternal boring uninteresting lonely drab uninspiring bleak destroyed dull

Step 2: Physical Descriptors
Vast hard wide hard open barren still monotonous sparse

Step 3: Habitat Site Factors


1. The base plane contains a few coarse textured objects in primarily a bare and neutral area (bare earth and scanty leaf litter).
2. Many medium-sized tree trunks with dense foliage in uniformly distributed pattern create a vertical plane that offers limited short views. Small patches of sunlight create an exhibit space with low light intensity.
3. The overhead plane is of medium height; 8-20 m, with a dense canopy containing many branches and/or coarse leaves in overlapping tree crowns. The sounds of the space are soft and with abrupt contrasts (light breezes, distant stream/waterfall sounds).'

Zoo Design: The Reality of Wild Illusions


Unconvincing false tree in monkey enclosure, London Zoo

If we consider the architecture and planning of the zoo to be primary, then the animals themselves are relegated to living decorations. With captive animals the idea of ‘living’ is somewhat altered, as although their entire reason for being present is to do with their life, their vitality, this life (i.e. animal behaviour, mobility etc.) is often lack-lustre or made impossible in confinement. As Stephen Spotte writes, they are like badly trained actors, who do nothing but stare back at the spectator.

'Today’s zoo can’t escape certain connotations, notably restricted space, unpleasant odours, and the uneasy truth of mankind’s dominance over wild creatures. But in a culture where reality and image have become synonyms, captivity merges easily with consumerism and the ensuing metamorphosis loses many of its harsh trappings. The frailties and stress associated with zoo life then disappear along with our sympathy, and the animals are transformed into their own images.
Future zoos might exhibit only animals bred in captivity for many generations, perhaps remnants of species that were once endangered and finally extinct in the wild...The results should please those who show the proper historicist reverance for fragments and a romanticised belief that the past can be reconstituted.'
Stephen Spotte

'Removal from the dangers of living in the rarely “wild”, often “war-torn,” typically “horribly impoverished” areas of the world to which they are indigenous, animals in today’s enlightened zoos, with their veterinarians and antibiotics, can now look forward to long lives; indeed, they can look forward to genetic immortality as cryogenically preserved gametes and tissue samples.'
Savages and Beasts - the Birth of the Modern Zoo



Works near Lion enclosure, London Zoo 2009
Reptile House at London Zoo
Tunnel at London Zoo


'Today’s zoo occupies a nether world between real nature, which can never be known, and a leaky bucket of cinematic ‘realism’ that retains no secrets atall. Zoos claim to represent the first while competing actively with the second. Grasping at both, they fail to be either.
Zoo exhibits also resemble theatre stages in their use of backdrops and stage lighting. That the décor is devised and arranged largely to benefit the spectators is undeniable. It is ‘part of the ensemble of props needed for this theatre of illusion.’ It is, in fact, theatrical furniture.
The moat separating the spectators has its theatrical counterpart in the orchestra pit. To extend these associations, what lovers of theatre like best is the actor’s presence – in this case live bears.'

Stephen Spotte


Inside Mappin Terraces

Vachel Lindsay was an early film theorist and wrote in 1915 wrote:

‘Mankind in his childhood has always wanted his furniture to do things (to move on their own accord)’

For Lindsay, wouldn’t the zoo be the ultimate proto-cinematic form, where the furniture actually is living?
As Spotte says, zoos are for people. Any function they might have now as centres for pure conservation can be considered an attempt to update an idea that is ostensibly outmoded.


Tigers, Richard Whitby, 2008

I first started to think about zoos in this context after a flippant comparison I made to zoo animals and looped video; that in a gallery the video work is like a captive animal, endlessly looping around its enclosure.

The precursors to zoos were royal menageries, where the prime purpose of the animals was to be at some point killed by other animals, to die a spectacular death. Animal life is essentially ‘other’ to our own, this is the fascinating thing about them; wondering what, or whether they might be thinking and why they act in a certain way. It is also the grounds of the justification for their captivity – they cannot appreciate their predicament, so therefore cannot suffer (or any suffering can be easily placated). At the same time, they are easy to empathise with (or at least, some species are). Their simple victimhood – apolitical, innocent – is easy to mourn. In war time, this empathy with animals is perhaps akin to the sadness for destroyed buildings and works of art. Animals are ‘other’ enough to project onto them so that they illustrate whatever we want, be that fear, admiration, economic power or altruistic environmentalism.



Animals in War memorial, London

Zoos are the bastardised offspring of many forms; entertainment mongrels, neither museum, school, folly, circus or wildlife film. They are neither entirely historical relic, nor contemporary ark, and in this ambivalence they falter.

 

 

Sources:

The Buildings of London Zoo - Peter Guillery 1996
London Zoo from Old Photographs 1852 - 1914 - John Edwards 1996
Round London's Zoo - Helen M.Sidebotham 1928
A Zoo Allegory - James Karl Fischer 2001
Zoo Design: The Reality of Wild Illusions - Kenneth J.Polakowski 1987
Zoos in Postmodernism - Stephen Spotte 2006
Savages and Beasts - The Birth of the Modern Zoo - Nigel Rothfels 2006