Great Ape House in Stuttgart Zoo A New Home for gorillas and bonobos

Ape House in Stuttgart
Ape House in Stuttgart | Photo: Hugo Jehle, Stuttgart

Architecture for animals is no routine building project. The new Great Ape House for gorillas and bonobos in the Stuttgart Wilhelma is one of these unusual designs. Although it was only possible to ask those who visite the facility about their preferences, and not the inhabiting animals themselves, the great apes can rest assured that the design of their new home has been in good hands. In 2006 the Berlin architects Hascher Jehle won the competition and together with the landscape architects Möhrle and Partner from Stuttgart came up with an ambitious, emphatic, functional and close-to-nature solution that will benefit all the parties involved. The design was also created in close consultation with the management of the zoo.

Besides being a place where people can discover animals from all over the world, the Stuttgart Zoological Garden also features extensive botanical gardens with greenhouses that date back to the 19th century, parkland and decorative gardens with views overlooking the river Neckar. This is where the architect Karl Ludwig von Zanth was commissioned by King William I. of Württemberg with the first buildings in 1842, as an extension to the Rosenstein Palace. The first animal enclosures were built in the nineteen sixties. Today they are nestled in lush vegetation and surrounded by mature trees. Each of the pavilions offers an abundance of space for the animals to roam and there are also sheltered areas outdoors. Visitors can watch the animals from different angles and study their movements and behaviour. At Stuttgart Zoo great importance is attached to animal welfare and also to communication and imparting knowledge to all generations.

This approach is also reflected in the concept and design of the Great Ape House that was completed in 2013. The house is solely for bonobos and gorillas – two great ape species that are native to regions of Africa. Now, however, only the very oldest members of the ape families in Stuttgart zoo are from the original countries, such as Cameroon, Angola or the Congo. The families that live here today are a heterogeneous mix, bred in different zoos across Europe and America.
 

  • Affenhaus Stuttgart Foto: Svenja Bockhop, Berlin
    Affenhaus Stuttgart
  • Affenhaus Stuttgart Foto: Svenja Bockhop, Berlin
    Affenhaus Stuttgart
  • Affenhaus Stuttgart Foto: Svenja Bockhop, Berlin
    Affenhaus Stuttgart
  • Affenhaus Stuttgart Foto: Svenja Bockhop, Berlin
    Affenhaus Stuttgart
  • Affenhaus Stuttgart Foto: Svenja Bockhop, Berlin
    Affenhaus Stuttgart
  • Affenhaus Stuttgart Foto: Hugo Jehle, Stuttgart
    Affenhaus Stuttgart
  • Affenhaus Stuttgart Foto: Hugo Jehle, Stuttgart
    Affenhaus Stuttgart

Rich social and family life

Visitor ratings at the ape enclosure are always high because the great apes are so akin to humans. Like the great silverback, whose wise, penetrating stare – rather like a disapproving parent – does not miss anything, always aware of every emotion. Then there are the frisky young ones who are watched over and cared for by their mothers with attentive and loving gestures. Scruffles, fun and enjoyment, screeching and hugging, this is a rich social and family life. One constantly has to ask oneself why these friendly creatures – so akin to ourselves - have to live behind bars.

Optimal conditions for animal observation

In order to bring these tow related worlds closer together and to reduce the gap between the inside and outside worlds, between being free and confined, the architects Hascher and Jehle have interwoven the areas for the visitors and for the residents using terraced landscapes. The extended S-shape of the new building measures almost 100 metres in length and is a concrete structure with two separated enclosures. These seem to slip into the ground at the back where they divide the outdoor enclosure into zones, like a topographical distortion. The gorilla and bonobo enclosures face each other and run along the S-shaped visitors’ path in an offset arrangement. Inside the house, the visitors are taken through a jungle of flowing, superimposed shapes and pathways.

The used colours and materials are reduced: concrete, glass, wood and steel, all kept in variations of grey and white, here the lush green vegetation dominates the scene. Some of the care, feeding and technical spaces are underground, out of sight. The visitors can, however, view the play area. The conditions for viewing the animals are excellent. There are bright communal spaces with floor-to-ceiling glazing to the outside, floor-length windows to the enclosures as well as skylights and green roof landscapes. The architects clearly view the natural features of the site as an overall connecting link, bringing everyone under one roof. The boundaries only become visible when looking up. Here wire steel seals off the outdoor areas that are up to 15 metres high.

A third dimension for free-climbers

Up in the lofty heights, among natural stocks of trees and leaf canopies, the apes can find wooden beams for climbing, artificial lianas, and hammocks where they can retreat and relax. Three-dimensional space is vital for these free-climbers and is more important than the floor space of the enclosure. This new house for great apes covers some 10,000 square meters and is about 14 times larger than their former abode. It has been designed in compliance with the directive of the European Endangered Species Programme (EEP). A zoo enclosure obviously cannot be compared with the natural habitat, nevertheless, thanks to the increase in knowledge gained on great apes and their species-specific needs the conditions and the requirements have moved on from the practice of old zoos where animals were kept in small cages, and Stuttgart can boast a truly successful implementation of this architectural concept.