Reinventing Jo’burg Zoo

2009-09-14 00:00

A MAYAN pyramid, home to assorted reptiles, some of them deadly, is rising above the treeline in Johannesburg’s leafy northern suburb of Saxonwold. It’s the latest addition to the revamped Johannesburg Zoo and is the brainchild of Pietermaritzburg architect Oliver Wills.

An earlier, innovative project paved the way. “I was the architect of the Phalaborwa Airport, the gateway airport to the Kruger National Park. SA Airlink’s Jenny Gray was running the project and she went on to become CEO of the Johannesburg Zoo.”

In the interim, Wills did some bundu-bashing, living near Pafuri, then bought some land on the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg and relocated. One of his local projects was the Broadacres private estate of Ian Burgoyne. “One day Pam Golding estate agents phoned me and said a lady called Jenny Gray was trying to get hold of me and gave me the number. I called the number and it was the Johannesburg Zoo.”

Gray was looking for an architect she could depend on. Gray had joined the zoo in 2004 and set about creating a world-class zoo. In June 2007, Johannesburg Zoo achieved Pan African Association of Zoos and Aquaria accreditation, indicating that it is operating according to international standards. Gray has since taken up a position as the director of the Werribee Open Range Zoo in Melbourne, Australia.

Johannesburg Zoo now has a themed layout and is reinventing itself to become an “adventure experience”. Various zones are being created to reflect different environments around the world — the Heart of Africa, the Spice Route, Southern Safari, Extreme Environments and Amazonia.

Wills chose to design Amazonia because “it houses South American reptiles, principally snakes, fish, plus frogs, insects and spiders, plus a couple of small mammals. There are about 45 exhibits all supported by the requisite back-of-house areas.”

A residence, an airport or a zoo; whatever the structure, Wills applies the same rule of thumb: “When I design, I think of the people who will be experiencing the building and imagine myself in their shoes to see what they would like. I found the main users at the zoo were young schoolkids and mothers with prams. So making them happy was one of the prime design objectives.

“I came up with the idea of a Mayan temple and studied as much about them as I could. However, they were really all ‘outside’, they were just built on top of mounds of earth. There was nothing inside, while here at the zoo there’s a lot inside. In the end I came up with a stylised contemporary version of a Mayan pyramid …”

There are two floors in the main temple connected to each other through a series of staircases and ramps. There’s also a rooftop viewing platform accessed from either side of the temple with ramps giving access up and down outside the structure.

The final building has a central pyramid with two extended arms housing various displays and exhibits. Access ramps go up and down and in and out of the structure. The meandering walkways echo the motion of a snake and decorative motifs reinforce the connection. “However, the design is suggestive and doesn’t detract from the displays because of the use of muted and neutral colours. I think the result will work for kids and you are able to push prams, though that’s not possible everywhere.”

The structure is nearing completion. “We began two-and-a-half years ago and would normally have been finished by now, but the zoo relies on donations and grants to complete projects. It should be finished in two or three months,” said Wills.

• Check these websites: www.jhbzoo.org.za/animals.html and www.flyairlink.com/about_us/kruger_park_ gateway_airport.php

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