• The Houston's Zoo new Galápagos Exhibit showcases the diversity of life found in the Ecuadorian archipelago. - photo by Sue Chin

The history of the zoo dates back 3,000 years to Ancient Egypt, when captured animals were used to display the wealth and power of pharaohs. These private menageries developed over the centuries to become places for scientific study and public edification—though the conditions these animals were subjected to would be considered abhorrent by contemporary standards. But no more. Zoos today are increasingly focused on conservation efforts, largely consisting of breeding programs, research, and public education.

Designed by SH|R Studios with Lake|Flato Architects, the Houston Zoo’s Galápagos Exhibit—which opened in April of last year—brings to life the story of the Galapagos Islands (originally called Las Encantadas, or “the enchanted”) and the many plant and animal species that inhabit its delicate ecosystem. Its design is driven by an uncompromising commitment to animal welfare while showcasing the beauty of nature, providing a world-class guest experience, and connecting to conservation work in the wild. Jason Hill, a partner at SH|R, notes that designing the visitor experience can be much more prescriptive than, say, designing a typical public park. Says Hill: “With a zoo, you can have somebody start their journey at one place, walk through an experience, and end their journey at a different place. Which means we can deal a lot more with choreography and storytelling than maybe you could in other design types.”

The visitor experience at the Galápagos Exhibit begins with a trek through a rocky canyon that opens onto the expansive Tortoise Meadow, which leads into a heated cave where visitors can get “nose-to-snout” views of the tortoises inside. The meandering path continues through alternating experiences of exterior and interior space, including the Sea Lion Coast; a 290,000-gallon aquarium with sharks, rays, and sea turtles; a lava tunnel wall aquarium; a volcanic beach with Humboldt penguins, and more. (Some of the species included in the exhibit are not native to the Galápagos but were included to represent the diversity of life within the archipelago.)

The project presented unique technical considerations, too. For example, the level of grit in the epoxy floors had to be carefully considered to prevent scratching of the sea lions’ delicate underbellies, as was an optimized ratio of translucent and opaque roof panels to protect their sensitive eyes. “The clash detection that we did with the contractor on the miles and miles of piping that we have leading from the filtration equipment down to the exhibits was one of the most complicated models we had ever seen,” says Sunnie Diaz, AIA, a project architect with Lake|Flato.

But perhaps most notable in the design was the desire to give the animals choice—with options for different depths of water, the ability to be in sun or shade, and places for play as well as to be alone—just as would be expected of design for humans. Says Hill: “One hundred years ago, it used to be enough to see an animal in a cage, and that’s not acceptable, right? That’s not what we do anymore, and that’s not what a zoo is anymore. Part of our goal is to try and change that perception of what zoos are because it’s about more than just the animal. It’s about putting the animal into the context of conservation and wild places around the world.”

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