A Humane Home for Elephants at Zoo Zurich

Elefantenhaus is topped by a dome punctuated with skylights that mimic the effect of a forest canopy. Photo by Andreas Buschmann
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Photo by Andreas Buschmann
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A glass-walled swimming channel lets guests view the elephants up close without intruding on their space.
Elefantenhaus is topped by a dome punctuated with skylights that mimic the effect of a forest canopy. Photo by Andreas Buschmann
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Designed by Markus Schietsch, this wildlife enclosure in the Swiss city reveals our changing attitudes toward animal well-being. 

International outrage over the death of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe this past summer has shown how our attitudes toward animals have changed. Even airports are endeavouring to treat them better. Gensler, the international design and architecture firm, is working on the first air terminal for animals, at New York’s JFK airport.

Zoos have changed, too, becoming less like prisons where wild beasts live behind bars, and more like research facilities where species can be observed and protected from poachers and habitat degradation. In Paris, architect Bernard Tschumi and landscape architect Jacqueline Osty rebuilt the zoological park, with fewer animals in more spacious environments. Rather than a mere attraction, such institutions are a means of instilling appreciation for science and natural history.

One of the most revolutionary controlled habitats to be realized has opened at Zoo Zurich, where local firm Markus Schietsch Architekten unveiled a home for elephants based on the principle of protected contact, which calls for entirely sep­ar­ate areas for animals and their keepers.

The massive Elefantenhaus enclosure is covered by a 1,000-metric-ton undulating dome made from three layers of cross-laminated timber. This shell is perforated by skylights that cause the sunlight to dapple the ground below, creating the effect of a forest canopy. Project architect Philipp Heidemann notes that the house responds to the needs and behaviour of its inhabitants: “It’s a diverse and stimulating environment for these highly social, intelligent animals.”

Visitors can glimpse the behemoths from outside, or from below, where a glass partition reveals these stunning creatures swimming in their new pool.

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