Canadian Architect


Award of Merit: Edmonton Valley Zoo Children’s Precinct

"An imaginatively choreographed project full of invention and surprise."

December 1, 2014
by Canadian Architect


Models demonstrate the concept of infrastructure to encounter animals under, between, on and above ground.

Models demonstrate the concept of infrastructure to encounter animals under, between, on and above ground.

ARCHITECTS The Marc Boutin Architectural Collaborative Inc. with the Portico Group
LOCATION Edmonton, Alberta

The Edmonton Valley Zoo is in the midst of a massive capital improvement effort aimed at establishing it as a leader in the realms of conservation, environmental stewardship and education. The renewal of the Zoo’s children’s precinct presented the opportunity to help realize these aspirations through the reconceptualization of the spatial and experiential elements that make up the precinct’s many habitat, exhibit, holding and visitor amenity spaces. Whereas zoo design has historically opted for a distinct division between human visitors and animal inhabitants, more recent approaches have foregrounded the importance of immersion as a means of enriching the educational value of exhibits, while simultaneously improving the living conditions of the resident animals.

Immersive landscapes are those in which animals and humans alike are enveloped by a common habitat. This approach serves to erase the boundaries and hierarchical divisions between animals and visitors found at conventional zoos. By engaging animals on their own terms and in their own habitats, visitors are better able to understand the high degree of interconnectivity between themselves, the animals they are viewing, and the world around them.

Within the tree canopy, platforms and walkways allow visitors to view primates.

Within the tree canopy, platforms and walkways allow visitors to view primates.

Children and adults perceive and engage the world in very different ways. At an elemental level, children operate at a very different scale than their adult counterparts. Unlike adults, children also tend to learn about the world and their place in it with a high degree of physicality: through play. Using immersive landscapes and a “child’s-eye view” as points of departure, the project pursues four primary gestures of spatial engagement as a means of defining a new conceptual framework for the Zoo: Under, Between, On and Above. These abstract experiential types speak to a wide range of possible means of bodily relation to a given landscape and simultaneously sponsor play as a primary mechanism for engaging that landscape.

These engagement archetypes are propagated architecturally through the creation of type-forms that begin to order the site physically and experientially. Animals within the Zoo’s collection are categorized through affinities with the aforementioned formal types, creating a scenario wherein a single species can be engaged through a series of experiential fields, rather than from a single vantage point. This approach helps to facilitate a comprehensive understanding of both the “part” (animal) and the “whole” (habitat).

Unlike conventional means of curating animal collections, this approach emphasizes the connections between humans and animals as bodies in space, rather than grouping species according to their geographic origins, thus fostering an interspecies connection that is rooted in empathy built through shared experience.

Site section

Site section

EG: An imaginatively choreographed project full of invention and surprise. We were concerned about the materiality and the actual physical resolution, but were ultimately seduced by the project’s promise.

MG: The sectional diagram, the models and the clarity of the story of where animals live—below, on and above ground—is just a beautiful diagram of what the project can be, incredibly suggestive of its potential.

TS: An interesting and playful response to a zoo program. If the approach taken in the conceptual models is followed through at each different component level, this could be a very strong project.

Client City of Edmonton/Edmonton Valley Zoo
Architect Team MBAC—Marc Boutin, Richard Cotter, Tony Leong, Jerry Hacker, Mike Deboer, Kristin St.Arnault, Sean Knight, Jodi James, Nate Dekens, Kurtis Nishiyama, Katie Pearce, Lindsay Horan, Holly Simon, Rob Gairns, Andrew Dejneka. Portico Group—Dennis Meyer, Jim McDonough, Bronwen Carpenter, Paul Sorensen, Laura Bassett.
Structural Read Jones Christoffersen Ltd. | Mechanical/Electrical Williams Engineering
Civil CIMA +
Landscape The Portico Group and PFS Studio
Cost Acumen Cost Consulting
Code Spitula and Associates
Area 30,000 ft2 (buildings); 2.0 hectares (site)
Budget Withheld
Completion 2018

Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect is a magazine for architects and related professionals practicing in Canada. Canada's only monthly design publication, Canadian Architect has been in continuous publication since 1955.
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