Thinking about the visual culture of Baltimore, Fred Scharmen takes a time machine ride, with giraffes. Photographs by Theresa Keil.
The other week I got an email from a friend involved in historic preservation. A black-and-white photograph of an architectural model was attached to the e-mail. Like many architectural models, this one had tiny people on sidewalks and little fake trees in the landscaping. The tail fins and classic lines of the model cars on the road out front seemed to date the image to the mid-1960s. But the building design looked like something from the future, as if someone had landed a toy flying saucer in the middle of a suburban lawn playset—and, wait a minute, were those giraffes out front? According to the email, the photograph showed a model of the giraffe house at the Maryland Zoo in Druid Hill Park. The building still exists, and it is a fascinating example of modernist architecture.
Baltimore has more than its share of historically relevant modernist architecture. The beauty in these structures, when it exists, doesn’t come from ornamentation or from an attempt to mimic classical forms. The earliest modern architects found inspiration in the building’s intended function and in the abstraction of nature into geometry.”Form ever follows function. This is the law.” wrote Louis Sullivan, one of the early progenitors of modern architecture, in 1869. Sullivan’s protégé, Frank Lloyd Wright, would take this principle and build an architectural language based on clear functional separation of public and private space, with detailing that breaks down natural forms into geometric compositions.
“Nothing is more annoying to me than any tendency of realism of form,” Wright wrote, criticizing his contemporaries’ tendency to fill window frames and door openings with ornamental carvings of plants that “get mixed up with the view outside.”
Buildings in zoos have to balance the needs of three types of users: (1) visitors—going from exhibit to exhibit along a public path; (2) zoo staff—working in the private areas of the zoo; and (3) animals (of course)—each species with their own set of individual requirements. Older zoos, like New York’s Central Park Zoo, built in 1860, placed the animal in a cage, like a statue on a pedestal, with zoo visitors circulating around the enclosure, and staff accessing it from behind.
The giraffe house at the Maryland Zoo was designed in 1964 by Arunah S. “Ed” Abell IV, a little-known Baltimore architect. At the giraffe house, Abell’s flying saucer-like plan is the result of a new insight into how zoo buildings could function. Abell’s design puts visitors in the center of the zoo experience. Animals and keepers occupy layers around the visitor. Visitors come into the center of the building from a public path; staff enter the outer ring of the giraffe house from the private area of the zoo.
Abell wanted zoo visitors to feel like they were sharing space with the animals. As the architect told The Baltimore Sun in 1965: “Tropical plants, trees and rocks, combined with the circular and dome shape of the whole building are designed to aid the viewer’s excitement, … surrounded by giraffes, looking through foliage to see them.”
Abell’s experience-based approach to user relationships is a big advance on older ideas that treated giraffes like objects. His use of “plants, trees and rocks” was just as rational. Abell had filled the center of the space with real rocks and plants, illuminated by skylights, all spiraling around a central column. This column is topped by a branching wooden lattice that screens the concrete dome above like an abstract tree. Abell is using this column to engage in dialogue with the real plants around it, without trying to directly mimic them.
In later renovations of Abell’s giraffe house by zoo staff, this notion of an abstract nature would start to get lost, as ideas about zoo design shifted. In one update, Abell’s plants would be pulled closer to the column and enclosed in a glass storefront window; this probably made the plants easier to care for, but Abell’s image of giraffes seen through foliage was lost.
Later, the real plants and rocks were removed altogether, replaced by gravel and boulders made of concrete. Eventually, even Abell’s abstract tree was covered up with fake concrete tree bark in an attempt to imitate the texture of a real tree trunk. These changes reflected the tendency in zoo design away from abstraction and towards a more direct and literal simulation of real terrain and vegetation.
The concrete rocks in the outdoor environments at the Maryland Zoo have aged along with their real counterparts, accumulating moss and overgrowth, almost fitting into the hilly rocky landscape of the Baltimore park appropriately. When I visited the giraffe house this spring, I noticed that the concrete rocks and trees inside the futuristic building were kind of frozen in time.
In 1923, the modernist architect Le Corbusier famously wrote: “A house is a machine for living in.” But what if a house is a house for giraffes?
Are the giraffes reassured by fake rocks made of concrete in the same way that some humans find comfort in houses with hollow plastic classical columns and ornaments? Do the animals care whether or not we imitate nature? Can giraffes appreciate innovation and efficiency that allows their keepers to feed them smoothly and regularly?
Where there was once chain link fence, there are now walls with windows. Still, anyone who comes to the zoo to visit the giraffes in their unique house will find animals that are alien and familiar at the same time. Inside this sleek flying saucer-shaped machine for giraffe living, surrounded by these long necked twig-chewers with furry horns, black tongues, and bulging, expressive eyes, human visitors are, for a moment, transported and transformed. The giraffe house, even though it was designed and built almost fifty years ago, is still the kind of futuristic abstraction that can demonstrate the visual shock of the strange and new.
Fred Scharmen teaches in the graduate architecture program at Morgan State University. He earned a Masters in Architecture at Yale University. He will be giving a talk on the giraffe house as part of an upcoming tour, hosted by Baltimore Heritage and The Maryland Zoo. Photographer Theresa Keil goes all over Baltimore with her camera; she loves giraffes. Art Criticism in What Weekly (whatweekly.com/artcrit) is made possible with the generous support of the William G. Baker, Jr. Memorial Fund, creator of the Baker Artist Awards, www.BakerArtistAwards.org. Marcus Civin edits these art criticism articles for What Weekly. For more information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.