Giant Pandas

The Adelaide Zoo Giant Panda Forest and Entrance precinct announce the arrival of the mega fauna pin-up for endangered species.

In discussing the rise of the modern consumer era, John Berger notes our relationship with animals has changed dramatically, and become impoverished. He notes inadequate compensatory cultural responses, including an increase in the keeping of pets, the mass production of fluffy toys and the emergence of the modern zoo. While menageries have long existed, public zoos emerged in the industrialized cities of the nineteenth century.

Berger’s 1980 influential essay, “Why Look at Animals,” coincided with reflections by zoos themselves. They responded with refurbishments that embody immersion theories: exhibit environments that mimic habitats and disguise the cage, while also focusing on animal welfare. Immersion techniques were embraced by the Hassell-led team, which developed the current framework plan for the Adelaide Zoo. The team also designed the South East Asian Exhibit, the new entrance, additional perimeter fencing and the Giant Panda exhibit. Late last year, with enormous media fan fare, Adelaide’s newest celebrities Funi and Wang-Wang moved in to their new home at the zoo.

The giant panda is the mega fauna pin-up for endangered species. Adelaide Zoo is one of eight global captive breeding programs outside China; the panda diaspora, diplomats for their species. The housing of giant pandas in Adelaide does not follow the immersion principle of zoos focusing on bioregions of similar climates and reproducible habitats. Instead, the focus is on the giant panda’s endangered species status, and consequently on breeding and comfort requirements. In highland China, giant pandas live near creeks for ready access to water, moving down to the bamboo forest for food and up to the tree line to sleep. It was not feasible, however, to use the archetypal bamboo forest habitat as the design source - it would be destroyed immediately! Instead the river ravine was used as the source. This also provided opportunities to construct a sloped landscape that increases opportunities for visitors to view the giant pandas, while keeping fences hidden (something not always achieved in the earlier South East Asian exhibits).

Giant pandas wang Wang and Funi are the only ones in the Southern Hemisphere and the first to live in Australia permanently.

Giant pandas wang Wang and Funi are the only ones in the Southern Hemisphere and the first to live in Australia permanently.

Image: Ben Wrigley

The exhibit is in two halves: his and hers. Much as they would live in the wild, the giant pandas are housed separately until they are sexually mature. Once mature, giant pandas remain solitary animals, but seek each other out for breeding. The exhibit uses the now conventional response of a mimetic, miniaturized landscape based on the original habitat of the species. It is one familiar to garden design where exotic icons are imported to local settings. More interestingly, the first half of the exhibit, Funi’s, includes the dominant pre-settlement fir trees and rhododendrons while the second exhibit, Wang Wang’s, includes post-settlement timber species, poplars and birches, telling a narrative through the landscape itself.

Funi and Wang Wang also have their own day rooms. Thankfully, the architecture here does not employ the vernacular and cultural appropriation of immersion theory, instead it is curiously akin to an elegant resort with expansive glazing, plunge pools, chilled rocks and obsessive detailing. Maybe this is a suitable mode for these pampered and valuable creatures! The dayroom floors consist not of plush carpets but of “deep litter” mulch, a composting technique for urine that removes the need for wash down and wasteful water use.

Adjacent is the large sheltered public viewing area incorporating a large underslung bamboo canopy and sliding screens, which accommodate multiple requirements. These include afternoon shading, the ability to close the area for private functions and, if breeding occurs, to provide privacy for the mother and her cubs, in which case visitors will view the panda cubs on screens via CCTV.

The Entrance Precinct includes significant green walls and rooftop.

The Entrance Precinct includes significant green walls and rooftop.

Image: Peter Bennetts

The dayrooms are separated by views through to the holding building, keeper facilities, storage space for the large amounts of bamboo, and research areas. This aspect is usually hidden from view to maintain the illusions of “natural” habitat but at Adelaide Zoo there is a genuine effort to reconnect visitors with the process and philosophy of the redeeming zoo. Berger identified a previous, more complex and ambiguous relationship with animals. While he had in mind that animals were “magical,” “oracular” and “sacrificial,” there may also be something about a companionship with animals in these gestures to connect visitors to the zoo’s processes of animal care and captive breeding. This might go beyond the take-home environmental messages about sharing the planet with other creatures and how human actions result in species extinction.

Conservation is now largely concerned with habitat retention, protection and expansion. It may be argued that zoos make only a small contribution to conservation, including through captive breeding programs. The paradoxical condition of zoos as monuments to their own demise, their contribution to environmental and biodiversity issues, and the historical role of exhibiting animals for our pleasure, is what makes zoos interesting. While it may be impossible to retrieve our pre-modern relationship with animals, zoos have an opportunity to embrace complexity and ambiguity. Landscape architects are adept at negotiating human relationships with elements of nature and natural environments. They appreciate that, however perverse it seems, embracing the artificial and the paradoxical communicates this complexity.


Hassell Adelaide
Adelaide, SA, Australia
Project Team
Sharon Mackay, Timothy Horton, Nicholas Pearson, Alex Hall, Andrew Schunke, John Wright, Josh Palmer, Amy Reed, Hugh Fraser, Maciek Furmanik, Ed Mitchell, Mariano De Duonni, Sam Wee, Meaghan Williams, David Bills
Acoustic engineer Sonus
BCA Katnich Dodd
Cost consultant Rider Levett Bucknall Adelaide
Disability access consultant Disability Consultancy Services
ESD, mechanical, electrical and fire BESTEC
Fire engineering BESTEC
Giant Panda exhibit design Jon Coe Design
Interior design Hassell Adelaide
Landscape architect Hassell Adelaide
Managing contractor Jaicon Constructions
Planning consultant Hassell Adelaide
Project manager Arup Adelaide
Structural and civil engineering Wallbridge & Gilbert
Water Feature Waterforms International
Site Details
Location Frome Road,  Adelaide,  SA,  Australia
Project Details
Status Built
Design, documentation 10 months
Construction 15 months
Category Commercial, Landscape / urban
Client Adelaide Zoo



Published online: 28 Apr 2016
Words: Tanya Court
Images: Ben Wrigley, Peter Bennetts


Landscape Architecture Australia, May 2010

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