Building That African Forest in Hermann Park

Sure, “immersive landscapes” — where visitors are supposed to feel like they’re just hanging out with the chimps and rhinos and giraffes in the wild — are the latest craze in zoo design. But what’s really the most innovative aspect of the new 13-acre African Forest the Houston Zoo is planning for its southernmost quadrant, at the intersection of North MacGregor and Golf Course Dr. in Hermann Park?

The project

. . . will feature closed-circuit TV connections with area hospitals, allowing patients to view animal keeper presentations or simply to watch animals in their near-natural habitats.

[Houston Zoo President Deborah] Cannon said the programs first will be made available to children’s hospitals, then expanded. Ultimately, they may be made available to local schools, she said.

At last, an effort to capture some of that technological synergy swirling around the Houston Zoo-Med Center nexus! Best of all is the Chronicle‘s own map identifying the project’s location, which is a gift to the city all by itself:


And the architecture sounds pretty exciting too. The exhibit’s

virtually invisible buildings and barriers, as well as many natural sights and sounds (and, yes, even smells!)—will give Houstonians the sense they are actually in an African forest. This extraordinary adventure will be transformational for Houston.

The transformation is scheduled to begin in September, and the project’s $50 million, 6.5-acre first phase is expected to be complete by the end of 2010. The Zoo’s directors tell the Chronicle‘s Allan Turner that 95 percent of funds needed for the first phase have been raised already.

What’s in the first phase? The plan featured on the website of exhibit designers Lyons/Zaremba (shown above) indicates two separate giraffe viewing and living areas connected by a “giraffe chute,” a building and free-range area for chimpanzees adjacent to an air-conditioned viewing structure, plus a restaurant, gift shop, trading post, and forest walk.

What’s planned for phase 2? Only a portion is indicated on the drawing, in the gray area near the top labeled “wild dogs.”

Drawings: Lyons/Zaremba (plan and building); Houston Zoo (chimp viewing); Jay Carr for the Houston Chronicle (location map)

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