January 22, 2016

Morphology / Zoo Metaphors
Bart de Hartog

based on O.M. Ungers Morphology / City Metaphors from 1981
written by Bart de Hartog in January of 2016


Morphology / Zoo Metpahors


Designing and Thinking with Animal Images, Metaphors, and Analogies


Apparently architecture can be designed for two different types of inhabitants: the human animals that live in the city, and the exotic species that are exhibited at the zoo. The idea of constructing suitable habitats for every species has inspired architects to design extra-ordinary structures for the performances of the daily rituals of Christian families, penguin colonies, yuppies, rhinoceros, bachelors, and lions. In using the same morphological elements but structuring them differently, the zoo provides a fertile object of study, constructing a microcosm of the society that built it. Many European cities built a zoo around the end of the 19th century, marking the edge of the city and providing a semi-rural environment for the animals to be displayed. The development of the city around it has turned them into isolated instances of city that many consider un-urban: a constructed natural environment framed by highways, housing developments, office parks, railroads, and shopping malls. As an urban fragment the zoo becomes the exception to the rule, defying the city’s grid while emphasizing the strength of its growth.


When Oswald Mathias Ungers drew the relationships between the cities morphology and everyday objects in his book Morphologie/City Metpahors, he visualized analogies that were always present in architectural language but never documented as such. The presence of animal figures in his book emphasizes how the knowledge that has been created in the zoo entered our everyday life, both physical and lyrical. This book takes his methods to the zoo, a place rich in metaphors and analogies, and visualizes the architecture of the city to that of the zoo, morphologically and/or metaphorically. Originally intended as a form of aristocratic pleasure, the zoo entered the public realm when the bourgeoisie started looking at nature as an attractive past-time activity. After lining up exotic treasures from the colonies for scientific and artistic purposes, they finally opened up the gates to the common folk to enter for a day of pleasure on a small fee. These fees could be spent on acquiring more animals, facilities, and territory for the zoological society to pursue their quest to grasp the concept of nature.
To improve the experience the animal habitats were dressed up to suit the species, turning the zoo into a living encyclopedia.


In the beginning of the 20th century these ideas shifted and with artificial rocks and moats the suggestions of a natural environment without barriers was constructed. The universal values of modernism brought changes to the habitats in the zoo, even the animals needed more light, clean air, and lightweight structures to be able to breath and fully enjoy the good life in the zoological park. Emulating the exoticism of both the animal and the architecture created fascinating structures, but became less popular when the living conditions were considered to be inhumane. Currently the zoo is able to reconstruct almost every climate that exists on our planet, making it possible to resurrect extinct climates that our modes of production are rapidly generating. In this way we are able to experience how life might have been like somewhere far away, and project new natural environments that exist nowhere in the world except for the habitats that are constructed in the zoo.


Animal Analogies and Perception


Probably all of us remember the children’s stories that become graphical in our imagination through the presence of numerous animals, whether mythical or not. The difference between these stories and the empirical knowledge deducted from plants, bodies, and animals, emphasizes the complexity and contradictions of the project of the zoo. The architecture of the zoo has developed analogously to that of the city, translating the progress we have made in our thinking processes and observations of the world around us into a sequence of buildings that provides a fantastic day of recreation within the urban environment of the city. After the enlightenment brought us the ingredients for the modern pursuit of knowledge, it gave birth to what we consider modern science through new phenomena such as the botanical garden, the anatomical theater, and the zoo. The progress we have made since then has made us indebted to the zoo for it allowed us to perceive the animal in an illustrated encyclopedia, visualizing the stories of our childhood while providing physical matter to study scientifically.
By looking at the other in both empirical and analogous manners, we have gathered information that proved valuable for the production of knowledge, technology, and commodities, and at the zoo we were able to observe their behavior in order to distinguish ourselves and emphasize the strengths and shortcomings that proved our superiority. Since Linneaus’s first taxonomies—classifying species of animals and plants—we have been constructing webs of data related to the deduction of knowledge about ourselves, studying how we relate to our material surroundings—both living and death—and how the natural world around us operates. In struggling to assign meaning to our own existence, we still project human characteristics on animals as a means of distinction and differentiation, to subsequently form an image of ourselves. In architecture the same idea of the taxonomy has been used to study buildings types, showing the varieties within a type through comparison and classification. From the early typological studies of Durand to the later observation of Rafeal Moneo and Aldo Rossi,: the dissection of architecture in to morphological elements find its origin in taxonomy.




In everyday language the presence of animal figures helps illustrate our stories, while often saying less about them than it does about us, for they only exist as such—and are attributed with these characteristics—as we acknowledge them to do so. By rendering them as beings that live in the service of mankind, we either humanize the animal or de-humanize ourselves, blurring the distinction in thought while making it spatial in the architecture or the zoo. With increased public access to exotic animal-others after the birth of the zoo, new forms of critique and representation entered the relationship. The commodification of the wild meant it had to be packaged to sell, while an increased interest in the well-being of the animal provided larger habitats that appeared more like the natural setting from which they originated. Though the question of the animal is a topic dealt with by many philosophers, it is not without difficulties since the concept of the animal itself is an inadequate generalization of a multiplicity of life forms and perspectives for beings other than ourselves. In line with Levinas’s notion of ethics as “being called into question by the face of the other,” Derrida poses that animals of various sorts may have a face and are thus “able to call upon us and obligate me in ways that I cannot fully anticipate.” The zoo can be considered the urban space assigned to the confrontation of the human facing the animal in the most controlled environment, and while it has an ethical impact by projecting framed instances of the exotic wonders of the “natural world” within the contemporary human habitat, it is hard to defend it as such. The captive animals both display the exotic grandeur of nature’s creations which we like to project on ourselves, but also our own everyday struggles as part of a globalized society that reduces you to nothing if you don’t participate in the rat-race. We are as much imprisoned in our own modes of production as the animals we appropriated to reflect upon our own existence, turning the zoo into a metaphor of the conditions of our own society.


Signs, symbols, and allegories


The zoo is read as an allegorical project, a sequence of living dioramas projecting fixed scenes where nature is represented as one condition: a taxidermy of the wild animal staged in a foreground that blends into the background seamlessly. Even if the argument for the conservation of the species makes sense in relation to the disappearing of their actual living environment, it remains a theatrical event that exposes our concept of nature rather than what it actually is. At the end of a day there are three levels of reality exposed at the zoo: the factual reality, the architecture; the perceptual reality, the animal habitat; and the conceptual reality,the idea of the zoo, the idea of the city, and the idea of the natural world.

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