As a studio Isthmus is deeply interested in the concept of play and the opportunities for learning it facilitates. Usually our research and thinking on the subject is human-centric, but in 2017 a unique opportunity arose to design a playground habitat for Wellington Zoo’s troop of chimpanzees, and to closer connect the chimp’s landscape with people.
The first priority was to renovate the existing climbing structure by making it more complex with a variety of horizontal and vertical poles and ropes providing the Chimps with a network of ways to move through the new environment. In line with the Zoo’s recognised focus on sustainability (it’s the first certified Carbon Zero Zoo in the world), materials were carefully sourced. Hardwood timber poles for the climbing platform were recycled from Wellington’s old trolley bus network; chunky ropes were reclaimed from Centre Ports tugboats; and swings and hammocks were made from recycled hoses donated by the Fire Service.
Understanding chimp behavior required a close working relationship with the Zoo’s animal care team. Chimps live within a complex social structure; in the wild they live in communities that range in size from 5 to 120 individuals, but chimps don’t like to spend 24 hours per day together. Instead, they build beds or nests in tree canopies using branches and spend many hours on these platforms. The upgrade was a response to a pressing need to create an environment that facilitated more natural chimpanzee behavior; to accommodate their fission-fusion behavior, that is, time together and time alone.
To visually connect the chimp habitat to the new viewing area and playspace, a section of wall on the site of the old Chimp House was replaced with glazing made from 50mm thick, toughened-glass panels (especially made in New Zealand) to withstand the full force of two alpha males displaying their strength. This benefit of this viewing area is that it provides visitors with an immersive experience in which to witness the full spectrum of chimp behaviour.
The ‘mirrored’ playspace aspires to educate valued visitors about how chimps play and behave, and how they survive in the wild, so that more people can understand what it takes to become a ‘Chimpanzee Champion’ and be aware of consumer choices that affect the habitat of these unique animals.
Construction was a logistical challenge. The main driver for the build was reducing the time the chimps spent indoors while construction was taking place. Timesaving build techniques included pre-engineering the large steel window frame, five panels of glazing, steel seat frames, timber for the viewing structure.
On a crisp December morning, the chimps were introduced into their new habitat. The alpha males emerged first, ascending the poles, following old routes, before cautiously testing new poles and ropes. To the delight of all, alpha male Marty shock tested the brackets to determine his safety first, before pulling himself up to the cradle to stand tall, surveying his new realm.