Urban Initiatives (UI) were the lead consultants and exhibit designers on the $4.2M Rainforest Entry Experience Precinct at Melbourne Zoo. Located on the site of the former Ape Houses, the new exhibit now forms the main entrance to the Rainforest Experience in the south-western sector of the Zoo. The primary components of the Rainforest Entry Experience are the ring tailed and ruffed lemur exhibits. These have been designed to reflect the Zoo’s contemporary philosophy, one that aims for immersive or interactive experiences. These experiences come with aligned conservation messages and actions.
Working collaboratively with Snowdon Architects and interpretation specialists, Arterial Design, UI created an engaging ‘walk through’ experience where ring tailed lemurs and visitors share the same space. The exhibit allows a direct encounter with the lemurs and their environment, an experience often impossible in more traditional enclosures where animals are isolated from the visitor. The visitor is immersed in a landscape where planting and materials reference the unusual spiny forests and denser lush rainforests of Madagascar, the lemur’s natural habitat. Careful consideration of the planting palette was required in order to reference the unique landscape character of this remote and evolutionary distinct island. Expressive architectural and interpretive objects also draw on natural forms of the Madagascan landscape. These forms have been designed to provide a stimulating environment for the lemurs and an aesthetically rich one for the visitor.
Architectural components such as the woven entry tunnel and tree house provide bookends to this immersive experience; the former functioning as an air lock to the ring tailed lemur aviary and also acting to heighten anticipation of what lies ahead. The tree house provides a visual anchor point within the ring tailed lemur exhibit and provides an elevated viewing point for the open aired, ruffed lemur exhibit. The steel framed and woven rattan tree house also presents conservation messages related to the rainforest environment and functions as an ‘airlock’ in that it provides a staged exit from the enclosed zone where visitors and lemurs share the same space. A number of other woven pods at a range of scales are embedded in the exhibit, some of which function as sleeping quarters for lemurs, others as feeder pods and larger ones as play items for children.
Within the exhibit, every element of the landscape supports the story and the vision. The aim was to create a choreographed landscape where the experience unfolds, revealing glimpses and views in a carefully staged journey through the space. Once through the woven airlock the visitor’s journey extends across a stream and timber bridge (with integrated misting system) into the spiny forest for a close-up encounter with the lemurs. The interpretation elements allow for connection between humans and the lemurs with opportunities for visitors to emulate the unique behaviour of ring tailed lemurs. A sunken seating area serves as a space for the keepers to conduct presentations and handfeeding. At the eastern end the exhibit becomes an arboreal experience as visitors pass over the stream via an elevated timber boardwalk and into the rainforest landscape. The lemurs freely move above and around visitors via a network of arboreal vines and climbing poles, avoiding the public if they choose. Through carefully integrated interpretation features visitors learn about and are encouraged to emulate the lemurs. These include circular benches for practising ‘lemur yoga’.
The project was strongly focused on minimising environmental impacts and integrating meaningful sustainability measures. Key to this was the recycling of most over the materials from the existing exhibits. Approximately 95 % of materials were recycled or diverted from landfill. The existing concrete encased Ape House Buildings and exhibits were crushed and used to raise the base of the existing containment moats. These moats were then resurfaced to form a new waterway within the aviary and a shallower containment moat within the ruffed lemur exhibit. Recycled materials were specified and a preference for low maintenance, low lifetime impact materials adopted. As an example a parallel project replacing the boardwalks within the Great Flight Aviary provided the timber for the boardwalk balusters in the lemur exhibit. Rather than importing mature trees, existing specimen trees from under used parts of the zoo were transplanted. This included an 8 metre Brachychiton, as well as large Erythryia and Ceiba specimens.
Office Name: Urban Initiatives
Role: Lead Consultant
Project name: Rainforest Entry Experience & Lemurs Exhibit, Melbourne Zoo
Project Location: Melbourne Zoo, Elliot Avenue, Parkville, Melbourne, Australia
Client: Melbourne Zoo / Zoos Victoria
Sub-consultants: Snowden Architects (now OLA Studio) – Architecture
Arterial Design – Interpretive Design
Kersulting – Engineering
Photography: Drew Echberg
Design Year: 2012 – 2013
Year Built: 2013 – 2014