During the 1931 Colonial Exhibition that took place at the Porte-Dorée in Paris, a temporary zoo was created at the Bois de Vincennes to introduce exotic animals to the public. This 3-hectare ‘mini zoo’ was set up by Carl Hagenbeck, designer of the first ‘panoramic’ zoo built in 1907 in Stellingen, near Hamburg. The Hagenbeck-style, for which he registered a patent in 1896, was already copied in Rome, London, Antwerp, Budapest, Milan, Saint-Louis, Detroit and Cincinnati. And now this temporary zoo was built according the same principles with artificial rocky outcrops that camouflaged the indoor enclosures and technical facilities while cage bars were replaced by moats. The aim was to showcase animals as they would appear in the wild, in an environment reminiscent of their natural habitats.
The temporary zoo was an enormous success with about 5 million visitors from 16 May to 15 November 1931. They saw which were all provided by the Hagenbeck company, that sourced these animals from the wild. Neighbouring towns requested for the zoo to be kept open after the Colonial Exhibition, giving Paris a zoological park to rival those of other European capitals. So, already in the same year, 1931, the National Natural History Museum (Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle) and Paris City Council joined forces and created the Parc Zoologique de Paris at the Bois de Vincennes, more commonly known as the Zoo de Vincennes.
Driven by the public’s enthusiasm for the design of the temporary zoo a project description for developing such a Hagenbeck-style zoo was submitted by the National Natural History Museum. The project included modernisation and extension required at the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes, Paris’ other zoological park. The decision on the project was made on 31 December 1931 by the City Council.
Headed by the Museum, the building and architectural design work of the project was entrusted to architect Charles Letrosne. He, of course, drew his inspiration directly from Stellingen Zoo in Hamburg. In March 1932, the City of Paris gave the Museum 14 hectares of land in the Bois de Vincennes, near Lac Daumesnil. Work began in 1933.
Professor Edouard Bourdelle — at the time the director of the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes — drafted the overall programme. The aim was to display the animals in a scientific way. Staging the species according their geographical origin and habitat was decided not to be scientific enough. A zoological structure was deemed more appropriate, so the animal species were grouped by taxonomic family: Ursidae (bears), Felidae (cats), Primates (monkeys and apes), Ungulates (hoofed animals), etcera.
The Paris Zoo was officially inaugurated on 2 June 1934 by president Albert Lebrun. It was opened to the public the next day. Its success proved unimaginable. In the first year, the turnstile recorded 5 million visitors that came to admire the 1,800 animals — 1,200 birds and 600 mammals. On display were many large mammals such as elephants, giraffes and rhinos, next to several species threatened with extinction. Furthermore, species that were rarely held in captivity could be seen, such as the okapi (Okapia johnstoni), the kouprey (Bos sauveli), and the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca). In the lemur house, nocturnal lemurs were kept including the critically endangered greater bamboo Lemur (Prolemur simus).
The Great Rock, with its 65 metres the tallest building in the area, was an illustration of technical skills, and became not only the Zoo’s symbol, but a landmark for Bois de Vincennes and its immediate surroundings. A double spiral staircase and elevator allowed visitors to travel up to the panoramic viewpoints, while various mountain animals frolicked on different plateaux.
In the early 1980s, the zoo was showing signs of wear. The concrete buildings were deteriorating and the technical equipment was showing signs of wear and tear. The need for renovation work was becoming all too clear. Minor repair projects proved insufficient, and they had to close the Great Rock in 1982. In 1994, with a special grant from the Ministry of National Education it could be refurbished and the Great Rock reopened in 1997. Nonetheless the Zoo remained in a dire state and was looking more and more like an endangered species itself. From 2002 to 2004, for safety reasons, the Museum had to take ‘protective’ measures — meaning that several animal facilities were shut down (the cat house, the bear enclosure, etc.) and some animals were transferred to other zoological institutions.
Finally, at the end of November 2008, the Zoo is officially closed to the public following a weekend of festivities which marked the end of an era. The renovation project got under way, but first the remaining animals had to be relocated. Sites with proper accommodation needed to be found, and the animals had to be transported under the best possible conditions. For all animals except for the herd of giraffes and the greater bamboo lemurs they achieved to find suitable new homes in various zoological parks in France, including the Ménagerie, and abroad. The lemurs were to sensitive to transfer them, while the herd of 16 giraffes was too large to find temporary housing. Splitting the group up would have halted reproduction, so it was decided to keep them on the premises while renovation was ongoing. Three giraffe calves were born during that period, and the herd earned a reputation for it. Most of the outsourced animals did not return, except for a few representatives of baboons, greater flamingo and penguins — or their offspring.
Zoo management set out a few founding principles for building and designing the new Zoo. They wanted their animal collection to be grouped geographically, so 5 large biozones — Patagonia, Sahel-Sudan, Europe, Guyana and Madagascar — were scheduled, each showcasing several different ecosystems. Moreover, the visitors should see the animals in their natural environment while being immersed in the respective landscapes. The development of all this was granted to Atelier Jacqueline Osty and Associates for the landscape design, while the architectural design of the new buildings was entrusted to Bernard Tschumi Urban Architects. The architects translated their mandate into, “the main concern was to create a new balance between urban and living environments, bringing together not only ‘grand designs’ of biology, geography and landscape but also of urban planning, architecture and scenography”1. They created a modern Zoo with a brand new look, although the Great Rock — the Zoo’s symbol and landmark — remained.
For the new zoo species for the different biozones were selected based on their appeal, their educational and scientific value and in compliance with conservation criteria from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). This process of re-population management is complex and had to be done prior to the scheduled opening, many months before sometimes even years. Some animals are sourced from French zoos, others travelled longer distances, such as the jaguar from Warsaw Zoo, the pudu from Chile and the giant anteater from Singapore. The new species collection features fewer mammals than the old zoo, but the collection is more varied.
The brand new Parc Zoologique de Paris reopened to the public on 12 April 2014 after 27 months of work and almost 6 years of closure. Situated in the Bois de Vincennes, the Parc Zoologique de Paris was and still is a cultural and scientific establishment under the auspices — together with the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes — of the National Natural History Museum. Until this very day it is the only zoo in the world to have been completely rebuilt and redesigned.
(Source: Zoological Park of Paris press release — A new species of zoo, March 2014; website Parc Zoologique de Paris; 1 Parc Zoologique de Paris, Architecture Zoo by Bernard Tschumi urban architects with Véronique Descharrieres, 2014)