Rooms have a particular effect on us. They guide our eyes and ears, thus leading our movement through built space. I am obsessed with spatial impacts just as a cineast is obsessed with movies. I can get absorbed both in art and architecture that conquer spatial perception, and, as it seems, have a soft spot for the discovery of spatial pecularities and oddities.
It occurred to me a while ago that a particularly peculiar spatial impact emanates from predator compounds. Bringing man and beast frighteningly close, these often purposefully and sterile built pens have amazed visitors from the early days of the menagerie on, inspiring poets and thinkers to ponder about the special relationship between man and beast, their gazes and who looks at who. For me, the layout of building such as the Berlin zoo’s Raubtierhaus is an interesting statement about the hierarchy manifested in brick and stone: A long course leads through the building, inviting the visitor to amble along the compounds just as according to his shopping customs. With Ku’damm nearby, this parallel couldn’t be more striking. While the animals are free to move to the exterior parts of their pens, the lair is the intimate place to get in close touch with the visitors. This is why I was interested in how these cages were built, designed and furnished.
Usually, their configuration follows their purpose strictly. Being strung together, the compounds are connected with doors to allow the separation of individual animals. Tiled walls and smooth floors clean easily. Slabs of wood, ropes and concrete platforms serve as furniture and toys to distract from the stimulus-poor environment. Sometimes, a lair within the lair is built to give the animals the opportunity to hide from the gazes. But there’s also a psychological dimension to the design of these compounds: They are painted in relaxing colours and illuminated by skylights, similar to a stage, but one that feels utterly sterile and artificial. (Even the dimensions are similar: Many cages at the Raubtierhaus are roughly 16:9 or 4:3.) Since plants wouldn’t live long in these pens, they feel empty and in that sense, modernist like a Mies van der Rohe mansion. However, there is much flora to be found on the visitor side of the bars, where a richness of exotic plants sprawl over large areas and along fish ponds full of karp and pennies alike.
Such practical interior design can be found in many places throughout the zoos. It is not limited to predator compounds, however, there are many more examples of pens that allow a more realistic, less artificial design, simply because plants and rocks can be used in the same confined space. Feline predators are simply too large to allow further furnishing of these often old compounds. But in any case, enough said, here are the pictures.