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: and gateway_airport.php

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.