Júlia Hanuliaková: I got confronted with psychology only when I started working with animals

julia hanuliakova
Image: Archive of Júlia Hanuliaková

Julia Hanuliaková studied architecture at Slovak Technical University, as well as historic preservation at the University of Oregon. She started focusing on zoo design, which she practiced at renowned studios Jones & Jones Architects and The Portico Group. In 2012, she has founded her own studio Zoo Design Inc, which worked on projects for zoos in USA, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Russia, Finland and others. In 2020, she became a director of the zoo in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Natalia Olszewska: I’ve seen your website, I’ve read about your professional experience, and I’m looking forward to exploring the intersections between human and animal design! How did you get into this field?

Júlia Hanuliaková: I went through the classic architectural education and what I’ve noticed is that the school did not provide me much background on the human experience. I got confronted with psychology only when I started to work with animals. Pretty much all the ideas about how we can create better spaces for animals came from human psychologists that over time switched to animals.

Michal Matloň: When you think about a design of a zoo, what part of it is about designing for animals and what part is designing for humans?

Júlia: This is one of the basic questions of zoo design. I thought about it a lot, reviewed papers. And my conclusion is that the way we have built zoos for a long time was mostly focused on people. The attention we are now starting to pay to the spaces for animals is pretty much a novelty.

The 3 Generations of Zoo Design

Michal: When would you say this new orientation has started? I know there were many zoos designed in a very simple, modernist way, but then they found out it’s not doing much good to the animals. They found out that animals have psychological needs too.

Júlia: There were three main generations of zoo design. The first one was about just creating an enclosed space where specific species could be displayed to humans. There are still many exhibits that work this way.

The second generation is about creating panoramas, where multiple species could live together, but the space itself would still be mostly decorative – like a scene for humans, where everything is displayed around them.

detroit belle isle zoo
Detroit Belle Isle Zoo (1909). Example of first generation exhibit design. Image: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, [LC-D4-68067]

We call the third generation “landscape immersion”. It started in the late sixties in the Pacific Northwest. Its main point is making the animal the central point of attention of the design. In these exhibits, the views of the animals are small and unexpected.

The number of animals you see is usually not lower than the number of visitors looking at them – they are put into a more equal relationship. It’s about humans being visitors to the land of animals. And the exhibit itself is intended to be a functioning ecosystem in which the animal can live a more natural life.

The landscape itself should create a story and also empower the animal. For example, so that the animal can decide if it wants to be seen or interact. But it also makes visitors more empowered. The animals are not passively introduced to them – walking along the main street, but they can decide between multiple paths to take and meet different animals.

Only in this third generation of designs, we have started to think deeply about the needs of animals and also how humans and animals could interact on a more equal basis in the zoo. 

Landscape Immersion at Seattle Zoo

Michal: What would be an example of such landscape immersion?

Júlia: I can tell you the story of the first landscape immersion exhibit. In 1972, in Woodland Park Zoo Seattle, the management decided to create a new primate exhibit. They organized an architectural competition and chose Jones & Jones, architects known for creating thoughtful and innovative spaces.

But then a very interesting thing happened. The board of the zoo has suddenly removed the director and so it went without leadership for about a year. That meant nobody gave the designers a strong direction. But they already had the contract, so they decided to dive deep, to the roots of the problem. Their first step was to travel to Africa and study the species that were supposed to live in the exhibit.

The school did not provide me much background on the human experience.

Based on this, they decided that to create an ideal space for them would be to replicate a similar ecosystem in the zoo. For example, they have found a small canyon which the animals seemed to enjoy. They documented it and recreated it in their plans. Still today, the canyon is not just a favorite place for the animals to hang out, but it also creates a very interesting exhibit – the visitors never see the end of it, as it constantly curves.

This was pretty much the first time when apes were exhibited without just being put in a cage. This was also the first time a project like this had a budget for landscaping – creating a more beautiful and natural space for the animals.

When the project was finished, the animals were allowed to enter the new space from their former home, which was this unpleasant, hospital-tiled, sealed building. It hurt them and they behaved like teenagers – it was a problem to take care of them.

Suddenly, they have experienced open space, no bars, no ceiling above their heads. They were quite wary at first because they have never experienced anything like that. But then one of the older females went out, reconned the space, came back, took her partner by the hand, and pulled him outside.

The Valley of the Tiger, Tallinn Zoo

The Valley of the Tiger, Tallinn Zoo, Estonia. Image: Zoo Design Inc.

People have then described them standing in the middle of the canyon, hand-in-hand in the wonder of what they saw. Gradually, more and more individuals settled in the new space and they started to make changes to it. First, the zoo managers interpreted it as them destroying the habitat. But soon it became clear that they were replanting the plants to fit their needs and preferences. That was amazing, such behavior was never seen in a zoo before.

What was even better, their behavior has changed completely – from unruly teenagers to calm and collected individuals that take care of others. This was a truly great experiment and it was very successful. It has started the era of what we now call landscape immersion, as well as an increased interest in the psychology of animals. Since then, this idea has been repeated many times and used for designing spaces for other animals too.

Big progress in the field of psychology of spaces for animals is also attributed to professor Terry Maple, who initially studied human psychology, but at age 38 became a director of the Atlanta Zoo. He’s now 74 and he’s still publishing and talking about how to create spaces for animals that are focusing on both the physical and mental wellbeing of animals. Initially, we have thought about animals as these creatures with very basic needs, but now the focus is much more on what we could call their happiness too – not just the bottom of the need pyramid.

Natalia: Where would you say the best zoos are designed today? Is there any specific region, where they do it particularly well?

Júlia: The zoos in Australia are doing very well and they also have a very strong connection to conservation. For example, they have mastered the skill of creating a story around every species they show – why they are unique and important for their ecosystem and how we can help them to survive.

From Animals to Humans

Michal: Returning to the spatial aspect, when you look at all the knowledge that we have about animals and what their needs are, and then when you look at human cities, what do you think? What are the common principles that we could use? Since humans are animals too, after all…

Natalia: Maybe to add to this question, I got hooked on the concept of ecosystems. It’s kind of taboo today to violate an animal’s ecosystem. It would interest me how this ecosystem thinking could be also applied to our cities.

Júlia: Yeah, this is a big question. I see parallels in the development of zoo design and our cities. Like when we initially only built bare exhibits with very little natural environment, to ones that immerse them and give them agency.

Wolves in the Woods, Dublin Zoo
Wolves in the Woods, Dublin Zoo, Ireland. Image: Zoo Design Inc.

We see that for humans, being in contact with nature, whether literally or through different interpretations of it, is beneficial. It makes us feel better about ourselves. So building cities which would simulate the ecosystems where we developed could be very beneficial.

Another thing that we see gives animals an increased life quality, is providing them with a lot of different in-between spaces. We create all kinds of overpasses, underpasses, and transitions so that they can choose when and where to spend their time and interact with humans. When we started building these in zoos, we thought that animals would use them only for moving from one part of the exhibit to another.

However, we found out that these in-between, transition spaces often became the favorite spaces for the animals. They would spend a lot of time there. So I think this concept of in-between spaces is also important for humans and we haven’t been paying that much attention to them in our cities until recently.

Architectural education could be improved by bringing more empathy into the process.

Michal: And in our cities, what would you call such in-between spaces, what kinds of spaces are they?

Júlia: It would be our streets and the way we move around. The quality of the experience of traveling from one point to the other, but also the way those points are positioned in the city. How many different ways of getting there we have. And also have different kinds of spaces for different needs and conditions. Designing public space, so that people can react to changes in the environment. Having shade when it’s hot, cover when it’s raining, protection and privacy for resting, spaces for observing others and being stimulated.

Building Cities for Restoration

Natalia: It makes me think of the prospect and refuge theory by Jay Appleton. And, indeed, we often don’t apply these basic principles in the design of our public spaces. When listening to you, I got interested in this concept of in-between spaces.

We’re very much into calculating profits and tangible benefits when building a new development and it would be amazing to somehow show how we can benefit by designing better in-between spaces.

Amazon Rainforest Building, Brandywine Zoo, Delaware, USA

Amazon Rainforest Building, Brandywine Zoo, Delaware, USA. Image: Zoo Design Inc. / GWWO Architects

I was recently working for a big company on their new workplaces and they were very much interested in the concept of restorative spaces. Not just inside of the workplace, but also outside of it – what is the holistic experience of their employees, what restorative opportunities they have before and after work, during their commute? It would be interesting to show companies that they also benefit from good, restorative public space, that they are not just an isolated island.

Our conversation makes me feel like we are paying more attention to animal needs than to human needs when designing our cities. But at the same time, it makes me hopeful. If we made such progress in designing zoos, maybe we can also make it in designing cities.

Would you agree with this? Why do you think there is such a discrepancy between these two spheres today, why don’t we use the same psychological approaches when designing for humans?

Júlia: I guess designing a zoo is a simpler problem than designing a city. Because if the leadership is on board, we have a full mandate to realize this vision. But cities are so complex, with so many different stakeholders. But even there, an enlightened leadership would definitely help.

Michal: It might be useful to bring your kind of knowledge and experience to architectural schools so that the students see what kind of thinking we already apply when designing zoos. It could inspire them to adopt the same approach in their human design process. 

Júlia: I would love to do that, I’m open to working with universities in this way. Architectural education could be improved by bringing more empathy into the process. By really looking at who is going to use a space, listening to the users, taking different points of view – including children, parents, all kinds of people in the process. In the zoo community, what connects us is the love of animals. We know that we need to carefully empathize with them and look at what science is telling us about their needs.

Elephant House at Zoo Zurich
Elephant House at Zoo Zurich. Image: *lingling* / Flickr

Michal: What is interesting is that most people don’t even realize that we’re animals too, or don’t choose to believe so.

Júlia: Yes, for me, the realization was that we are not separate from animals. We have evolved together with them, we have common ancestors and we share many sensations, emotions, and needs. And this also applies to our experience of space and our surroundings.

Michal: For our last question, if you think about all that we have been talking about, all the principles about good spaces, whether for animals or people… Can you think about some good examples of places where this has been put into practice?

Júlia: I was recently looking at different elephant exhibits and I found an interesting example from Zurich. It’s designed very well. They are also experimenting with how elephants and people can interact to reach a certain goal. For example, they have included a shower, where water needs to be pumped by both the animal and a human visitor. For now, the elephants have been interacting this way only with the keepers they already know, but it’s an interesting experiment.

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