Monday, 8 November 2010

Successful but Unethical Architecture?

I'm intrigued by two building projects featuring designing spaces for animals. One is a dog grooming centre designed by Square One Interiors, and the other an elephant house in Copenhagen Zoo, designed by Foster and Partners.

What struck me about the dog grooming centre was that it's quite an unusual way of spending money. The very idea behind the building seems to be fraud in itself - a building designed specifically to groom dogs is surely a waste of resources. It's essentially a canine beauty salon.

Looking past the ethics however I think the design's quite fun. The concept image below shows the architects are enjoying the design process, a quirky building function needs a suitably quirky design.

The final design, pictured above isn't too dissimilar from the concept image. It may be a complete waste of money, but that dog is clearly enjoying it! The website talks about dog ergonomics - the surfaces have all been designed with dogs in mind and all the platform heights have been designed to accommodate the average sized dog. I can see a small step for the smaller dogs to jump up on to the pampering platforms. 

Moving to a larger scale now, I'm interested in Foster's elephant enclosure in Copenhagen Zoo. Designing a cage/display case to show off elephants will always be unethical, no matter how well it educates the zoo's visitors.

The bulging glass roof reminded me of Foster's British Museum roof or City Hall. These designs can prove uplifting for humans so I expect an elephant too would rather be under a huge glass roof than a traditional dark elephant house. 

There are some successes to the design. The elephant house was designed so the whole herd can sleep together, like they would in the wild, and underfloor heating helps keep the space at a suitable temperature for them. There are shaded areas outside and large pools to evoke social behaviour in the animals. The barriers between elephants and humans are discreet and an on site educational centre further enhances the zoo's message of conservation...

...but keeping animals in cages is still keeping animals in cages. This design seems to be a step in the right direction; certainly judging from my experiences of visiting zoos that keep elephants in cramped houses leading onto muddy, vegetation-less enclosures. The balance of creating a sanctuary for elephants and an exhibition space for humans is certainly a tricky one. If I was designing the exhibit, I would have made it clear that humans were visitors in the elephants domain, perhaps by raising walkways over the enclosure, or by giving the elephants some form of privacy. 

I used to play a computer game called 'Zoo Tycoon', a game where the user had to create suitable exhibits for specific animals, using a combination of surface terrain, plants, rocks, slopes or hills, animal houses and toys for the animals. The animals became upset if they weren't given enough privacy, if the wrong kind of tree was placed in the enclosure and if there weren't enough similar animals in the exhibit (etc). The emphasis of the game was on the habitat, the environment... not on the animal houses. Elephants don't have houses in the wild, so I feel designing fancy glass roofs for them is missing the point. If the land they walk on, the vegetation, the food they eat, the company they have and the activities they would usually do in the wild are not able to be met in the exhibit design, then they shouldn't be kept in captivity. 

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