Issue: Volume: 23 Issue: 7 (July 2000)

Gorillas in our Midst

Digital designers convert the New York Bronx into a corner of the Congo

By Karen Moltenbrey

There's no place like home, especially if you're a 400-pound gorilla descended from Central Africa living in the Bronx. So when the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) began planning a new gorilla exhibit for New York City's Bronx Zoo, it decided to bring a taste of the African rain forest to the park's great ape residents. Though creating a 6.5-acre tropical rain forest in the heart of this mega-metropolis was far from easy, the task was made manageable through the use of digital design technology.

Home to more than 400 animals-including two gorilla groups totaling 23 apes-the new Congo Gorilla Forest has been described by many as the most innovative zoo exhibit ever built. The $43 million project, an ambitious conservation concept first envisioned over a decade ago, required years to plan and about three years to build, opening its doors to the public last summer.
Visitors to the gorilla exhibit follow a winding path through the heart of the Congo scene.

In what is the world's largest African rain forest exhibit, visitors can actually walk through the heart of the gorilla habitat, where they can get eye-to-eye with these gentle giants within a natural and humane environment.

"The exhibit was designed to give both the animals and the visitors the most natural experience possible by immersing people in to the go rillas' world," ex plains Susan Chin, assistant director for architecture at the nonprofit WCS. Trans form ing a section of the ultimate urban jungle into a lush, tropical paradise-re plete with a dozen waterfalls, several babbling brooks, miles of vines, mounds of sculpted rock, numerous rare plants and exotic flowers, and hundreds of unique animals-was a complicated un der taking. Taking charge of the project was the WCS Exhibition and Graphic Arts Department, which, in addition to its usual responsibilities of exhibit design and production for WCS venues, also created the conceptual design and master plan.
Designers from the Wildlife Conservation Society used the AutoCAD digital tool set to manage the Bronx Zoo's newest and most ambitious project to date, the Congo Gorilla Forest, where visitors can literally get within inches of these gentle giants. (Pictu

The WCS created a 1600-square-foot (one-third mile) visitor trail that winds past a colobus monkey forest and deserted tribal hunting camp, through a giant man-made fallen tree, and into a panoramic viewing area filled with mandrills, red river hogs, various primates, and other dwellers. Next, visitors enter a conservation showcase and a theater, both of which blend almost seamlessly into the exotic landscape, and end their journey with an up-close and personal view of the massive gorillas, which are separated from the public by only 1.5 inches of specially made glass.

"Everyone is always blown away by the fact that they can get so close to a gorilla," says Chin.

Designing a project of this magnitude and complexity required the WCS design department to adopt digital techniques to augment its traditional hands-on methodology. Using Autodesk's (San Rafael, CA) AutoCAD software running on Dell PCs, the architectural consultants created all the base drawings for the gorilla forest. According to Chin, AutoCAD provided the WCS group with a language with which it could more easily communicate its vision to the architect and subcontractors hired to construct the build ings and the tropical paradise. The digital files also served as base plans from which all the "creative" habitat elements, both natural and synthetic (from trees and foliage to ponds to skeletons and reptiles) were planned and designed.

"By switching to computer-aided design, we could be more efficient and improve communications among the many people involved in such a large project," explains Chin. "We could make changes more quickly and convey our ideas more accurately, without having to reinvent the wheel every time we made additions and changes."
The Wildlife Conservation Society artists in charge of designing the exhibits at the zoo typically use traditional means, constructing most of the installations by hand. However, the complexity of the Congo exhibit required the group to use digital design

After the WCS design group created the initial layout for the rain forest exhibit, it conveyed those ideas to Helpern Architects of New York, which helped the group formulate their concepts into a reality. Using the AutoCAD digital base plan as a guideline, the zoo's WCS group then began creating the rain forest by meticulously sculpting handcrafted trees and other one-of-a-kind structured landforms so they would blend into the environment.

This seemingly natural forest hides an intricate snarl of wires, cables, pipes, and other construction materials necessary to build and maintain this wild animal habitat. Water pipes, for instance, were concealed inside fab ricated trees, which were then covered with carefully molded synthetic tree bark, while steel cables were disguised as thickly textured vines, from which the primates could swing.

The buildings themselves disappear within the landscape, as do the ground-fog system, which gen erates a jungle-like haze, and the drainage, ventilation, and heating/air conditioning systems, as well as all other in frastructure nec essary for keeping the animals safe and comfortable. Also hidden from view within modeled trees are electronically timed feeders to stimulate exploration and involve the gorillas in natural foraging behaviors.
The days of confining the world's most awesome and revered creatures, such as gorillas, behind steel bars finally are beginning to disappear in most parts of the world. Instead, thanks to technology and innovation, those cold, harsh environments are b

"Because we used digital design and kept the base file up to date, we have a good idea of what's out there hidden among the 17,000 real plants, 55 artificial trees, and 10 miles of steel vines that constitute the jungle growth," Chin says.

According to Chin, the entire design process went surprisingly smoothly for the first-time digital developers, especially since "we were getting our feet wet in the middle of a major project." Whereas most major firms would have hired AutoCAD-experienced designers to work on such a project, that was not an option for the WCS. "There aren't too many people who are proficient in AutoCAD with experience designing animal habitats," she explains. As a result, the WCS design staff had little choice but to dig in their heels and learn how to use AutoCAD.

Re-creating a realistic replica of the Congo in the temperate climate of New York required the perfect integration of the natural and the synthetic. And, through the use of digital technology, the WCS designers proved that the world can be a smaller-and for the gorillas, a happier-place to live.

Key Tool AutoCAD, Autodesk (