Bjarke Ingels Envisions Zootopia – Where There Are No Walls Between Human and Animal

Posted by Rachel S on Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

Zootopia welcome area

Groundbreaking Danish architect Bjarke Ingels is at it again. His firm, BIG, is known for sustainable designs that flirt with the fantastical and defy convention. One of his latest designs, Zootopia, brings this keen and unusual sensibility to a proposed extension of the Givskud Zoo in his native Denmark. The first phase is planned to be completed in 2019 to coincide with the zoo’s 50th anniversary and has the potential to flip zoo design on its fluffy ear.

The concept is to create “the best possible and freest possible environment for animals’ lives and relationships with each other and visitors.” Zootopia plans to be a cage-free environment where animals wouldn’t be segregated from each other and will be more easily viewed by visitors. What’s core to the design is that the animals won’t know they’re being watched and you have to wonder if you’ll see different behavior than you usually see in a traditional zoo setting.

Rendering from Zootopia design by Bjarke Ingels

There are three lands featured in the design – the Americas, where we see bears, the African Savannah where the lions roam and Asia where the elephants plod. Each of the three lands will feature a reflective pod-like conveyance to allow visitors to tool around without the animals being able to see them. But won’t the animals notice floating or flying silvery orbs?

In the Americas area, the orbs would travel like bubbles on a clothes line above the animals. I wonder what the bears will think about the passing pods. In the African area, the pods will be people powered via a bicycle type mechanism. In the Asian area, the pods will float along the river. The idea is that the guests will be unseen to the animals, which does seem like it would make for a more enhanced viewer experience.

Rendering of Zootopia

Although, as a claustrophobic, I’m not loving the idea of being bubbled and shipped out. And you can see in the image above, the rendering shows children frolicking shockingly close to elephants. While the idea of communing with nature is appealing, the practicality of this dynamic is a little frightening. Other unique features that would hide guests from the critters include a buried bunker under a hill that will offer glimpses of lions without a quid pro quo glimpse.

Another is a small house hidden in tree trunks that would serve as a viewing point for bears in their “natural” habitat. The main entrance to the Zootopia set up looks to me like a giant comma where you can traverse the edge to see the environments or walk the interior bowl and look out through large windows. This setup almost puts the humans in the cage and allows the animals to look in, a rich irony that they likely won’t appreciate but guests should.

Central bowl of Zootopia design

Where traditional zoos tend to erect structures that emulate the native architecture of the nation rather than the natural environment of the animal (think pagodas in panda area), Zootopia would stick with strictly natural habitats and bury (quite literally) evidence of human presence. Each area will also feature a walking trail such that guests can choose bipedal conveyance or an alternate form of transportation. They also mention in the plans a possible drive-through component.

I’ve done free range drive-through animal parks before and love them, but doing them in your own vehicle is a fool’s game. The other concern with this set up is relying on guests’ common sense to guide them safely through. Even at traditional zoos, there is always someone stepping across a barrier to try and hand feed an oversized kitty, so what will happen if the open design here relies too much on the sensibilities of the senseless? Zootopia design philosophy

Zootopia a beautiful design concept that is likely a little too Utopian to succeed as conceived. With a few tweaks to protect the human animals from themselves, though, it just may be doable. I’ll be curious to see exactly how far the gap between design and reality will be once this fantastical project manifests.

 Image sources – and

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