Exhibits Are Like Movies: A Conversation with Ace Torre, CEO and Principal of Torre Design Consortiu

For the last four decades, Ace Torre and his firm Torre Consortium have been household names in the zoo design industry. He has become renowned for his innovative habitat designs often incorporating strong cultural, architectural and historical themes. Notably, Torre master planned designed most of the key exhibits at the Audubon Zoo, the Memphis Zoo, the Lowry Park Zoo and the Virginia Zoo. Here is his story.

@ Torre Consortium

Torre started out in city planning with a strong background in design. “I’m both an architect and a landscape architect,” he said. His big break came with designing the reimagined Audubon Zoo in New Orleans in the late 1970s. “It was a tiny WPA zoo- about six acres,” Torre recalled. “We looked at what modern zoos were doing and had the chance to expand the zoo to 53 acres and do bigger, more immersive exhibits for the people of New Orleans. They could see the living world in a way that wasn’t cages and WPA buildings.”

@ Audubon Nature Institute

@ Audubon Nature Institute

Ace Torre began collaborating with the zoo’s new director Ron Forman, who would lead the zoo into a massive renaissance. The renovation of the zoo began with Asian Domain, a complete facelift of much of the original zoo. “Asian Domain was centered around an old elephant building that had been there since the very beginning,” Ace Torre remarked. “We created a loop system around that building with deep moated habitat for lions, tigers and all these other critters.” It was followed by the African Savanna and World of Primates, built on the expanded property. “African Savanna was a big expansion where you finally got to see rhinos, zebras and secretary birds together on a believable grassland,” Torre added.

@ Audubon Nature Institute

@ Audubon Nature Institute

Recently Asian Domain got expanded and renovated as standards for Asian elephant husbandry changed. The elephants would get a much larger new space and where their old home was would be converted into a naturalistic habitat for orangutans. “A lot of things changed with protected contact [and they needed a new elephant facility],” Torre explained. “Ron Forman asked me if we could put an orangutan exhibit where the elephants were. We did it by creating articulated cornices that step out and give you what you need to keep orangutans in. We did a lot of plantings and structures that allowed the apes to go thirty feet above the ground.”

@ Audubon Nature Institute

@ Audubon Nature Institute

“We got the elephant exhibit up to proper size,” Torre continued. “We created that pavilion with a big shade structure which lets you get up close to them. We made it big enough so they have areas to get away from each other and added a 93,000-gallon pool. It gives you the chance to feel what the setting of Asia might be like with a bamboo backdrop, although the new elephant barn looks like the old style WPA barn. We matched the new and old buildings in character as they are very close to each other and we wanted consistency.” In the future, the area will continue to be redone with a brand-new tiger habitat.

@ Audubon Nature Institute

Both the Audubon Zoo and Ace Torre reached a milestone project in the Louisiana Swamp, which won the Exhibit Award from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums when it opened in 1984. “The Louisiana Swamp was the first exhibit in the U.S. to showcase the same environment it was from,” he claimed. “The art, culture, history and geology was told as one complete story. That ended up influencing all our other work as we came along.” The five acre region realistically recreated the environment of Louisiana’s swamps and bayous and educated guests about its diversity of life.

@ Audubon Nature Institute

“What we did with Louisiana Swamp is we approached it like a movie,” Ace Torre elaborated. “Like a movie, it has a beginning, a body of experience and a closure at the end. The site itself was a pine forest with one big cypress tree so we created all the lagoons around that cypress and planted a forest of cypress trees. The next pulse was a habitat complex with otters and fish. It started in a village and you feel like you’re going into a unique environment. You enter the country store and then the final pulse was a trapper’s cabin to show how mankind has come to adapt to the swamp, no different than the critters in the swamp. There’s even a fake Christmas tree from the oil industry and the boats the Cajuns made. It tells the complete story of the swamp 150 years ago, which is very difficult to get to by the average person. It’s easier to learn about the swamp at our zoo than in a real swamp.”

@ Audubon Nature Institute

@ Audubon Nature Institute

As Torre’s work with the Audubon Zoo became renowned in the industry, he began to do projects for other institutions. One of his first was designing an Asian elephant habitat for Busch Gardens in Tampa. “At one point, they had 18 Asian elephants and needed a big expansion,” Torre recalled. “They already had a huge barn for the elephants so we made a much larger habitat with waterfalls. It was the first exhibit where elephants could go under a waterfall and swim around. The guests could get close up, around and under.”

@ Busch Gardens

Soon after, Ace Torre got asked to design the new Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa. Only a few years earlier the zoo had been named one of the 10 worst in the nation by the U.S. Humane Society so the entire zoo was to be rebuilt. Over time the zoo got to be a lot larger. “The slogan of Tampa was ‘America’s Next Great City,’ so we told Mayor Bob Martinez let’s build a modern zoo,” Torre remarked. “We were originally told by the city when we expanded the zoo to 24 acres they would never give any more land because there were ball fields to the north. Then when we opened phase I, they got 500,000 visitors and, when they opened phase II, they got 800,000 visitors. The next mayor Dick Greco saw the strength of the zoo and gave the land of the ball complex to the zoo for expansion along with $15 Million.”

@ Lowry Park Zoo

@ Lowry Park zoo

To have a great zoo, Torre felt it had to have a great entrance. The concept of Lowry Park Zoo’s entrance was to represent the historic architecture and flair of Tampa on the outside and make visitors feel like they were entering another world. “We were able to use the ‘cracker style’ architecture of the old zoo to create the entry,” he noted. “We crafted the entry orientation with the plaza, cracker shack buildings and then the orientation plaza with the manatee statue. That was the first entry that really looked at the zoo entrance as the exit of where you live and entry to the wider world. We take the image of what we think is the community to have it be a portal to the world.”

@ Lowry Park Zoo

@ Lowry Park Zoo

The first phase of Lowry Park Zoo included the entrance, Asian Domain, World of Primates and an aviary. “We saw the attraction value of Asia,” Ace Torre explained. “We did it as a zoogeographic region with Asian elephants (since departed), tigers, sloth bears, tapirs and Indian rhinos like you’d see in Asia. We tried to tell a broader story. World of Primates was neat because we used moated between the habitats so you could see through. You could see the macaques and siamangs behind the orangutans. You see the total exhibit as a broad modern exhibit and it feels twice as big. We used live oaks to create an immersive experience.”

@ Lowry Park Zoo

@ Lowry Park Zoo

The second phase of Lowry Park Zoo included the Florida Boardwalk and a state-of-the-art rehabilitation facility for Florida manatees. “We did the first manatee exhibit in the United States,” Torre stated. “We had a recovery and health program in it. We worked with Pat Rose, the manatee expert from the state of Florida, to create the best environment we could. We did the best we could to figure out what the manatees’ requirements would be and did a shallow water body that’s a riverine environment and a deeper one that’s an ocean.”

@ Lowry Park Zoo

“The manatee complex was a tribute to us working hard with the state to even have manatees,” Torre continued. “It’s really a freshwater system with two saltwater recovery tanks. The manatees move through these as part of the display and healing process.” Since opening in 1991, over 400 manatees have been rehabilitated at the facility and released back into the wild.

Over a decade later, Ace Torre designed Safari Africa, which brought Lowry Park Zoo its first African elephants, giraffes, zebras and other African megafauna. “The concept we had was recreating a ‘walking safari,’ like when you get out of the jeep and experience Africa on foot,” he stated. “We wanted to give that experience of going out and see elephants, rhinos, giraffes and zebras face to face and create a great African lodge with decks. One of the first challenges was there was a big retention pond we had to relocate. We have to replumb the whole site and regrade it. Then we built the African elephant barn and made it all work together.” The concept took the guest experience of going from village to the riverine to the forest to the savanna biomes.

@ Lowry Park Zoo

@ Lowry Park Zoo

Of course, “Safari Africa was a fun project because it involved the importation of elephants from Swaziland,” Ace Torre elaborated. “I went with Lex Salisbury [to Swaziland] to see the elephants who would have been culled if we didn’t rescue them.” The cornerstone of the new area would be a state-of-the-art elephant facility designed carefully for their husbandry. “Protected contact came as a new requirement and we did a lot of training walls and elements that are integral to modern elephant exhibit design,” Torre elaborated. “We worked with John Linehart from Disney to look for the ideal environment and social interaction for the elephant herd. We gave them six bedrooms and multiple paddocks for the elephants to room free.”

@ Lowry Park Zoo

@ Lowry Park Zoo

Torre was responsible for designing the renovated Fort Worth Zoo, which opened with a facelift in 1992. The cornerstone of the reimagined zoo was African and Asian Primates, which featured gorillas, orangutans and bonobos. “The whole area was meant to be done to the scale of a giant emergent tree base in the rainforest,” Torre claimed. “The only regret I have on that one is we didn’t know a lot about glass back then and the interior never got to be as green as we wanted it to be. Part of the night building already existed so we took the old night building, made it have a 10,000-square foot rainforest interior core and let them go outside to two acres of exterior exhibits. We tried to make it so they had great exhibitry and immersive spaces.”

@ Fort Worth Zoo

Soon after, Ace Torre gained one of his primary clients for three decades: the Memphis Zoo. It also sparked his interest in incorporating historical architecture and cultural themes into his projects. The first thing he did for Memphis Zoo was the elaborate front entrance. “We thought about the concept of time,” Torre explained. “We look at the Romans in the same span of time the Romans looked at the Egyptians. When you look at the Temple of Memphis in Egypt, you look at 5,000 years of history.”

@ Memphis Zoo

The decision was made to create an entrance resembling an Egyptian temple of Memphis. “We tried to recreate the experience of the Temple of Memphis where the average person would walk from the Avenue of Animals into the Nile Plaza,” Torre continued. “It was linking the modern Memphis to the Memphis of the antiquities. We built the entry plaza first as it showed the zoo wasn’t just going to fix things up but build a whole new zoo. That helped them raise the money for the first exhibit, Cat Country.”

@ Memphis Zoo

Cat Country took the zoo’s felines from living on concrete to grass. “The interesting thing about Cat Country is I-40 was supposed to go right in front of the zoo but it stopped,” Ace Torre recalled. “Cat Country became a true experience with the tiger moving in front of the temple and the cheetahs and meerkats in rocky kopje outcroppings. It gave the visitor a real exciting immersion experience. We created amply sized habitats with lots of opportunities for the cats to get space and engage with the guest.”

@ Memphis Zoo

“We had environmental attributes that would have the animals present,” Torre continued. “The tiger could swim, the jaguar could climb into an alcove, the snow leopard could explore its evergreen environment and the cheetah could run through the tall grass.”

@ Memphis Zoo

Next Torre designed Primate Canyon for the Memphis Zoo, which featured a variety of great apes and monkeys from around the world in open air habitats. “Cat Country and Primate Canyon were taxonomic exhibits because the director back then [Chuck Wilson] was a big believer in that,” Torre claimed. “I feel we did better with the zoogeographic region exhibits since they became true global exhibits and told complete stories."

@ Memphis Zoo

In the mid 1990s, Torre Consortium designed Trail of Vines, a highly immersive Asian rainforest trail for the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle featuring orangutans, siamang, Malayan tapirs and other species. While most of the firm’s projects up until that point had been zoos in dire need of renovation, Woodland Park Zoo was already established as one of the best zoos in the world and had established a rich tradition in immersive habitat design. “We had been invited to a master plan update conference Woodland Park Zoo had which discussed zoo master planning in general and aspects of the future of the Woodland Park Zoo,” Ace recalled. Torre was selected to do Trail of Vines since the team was impressed with its innovative ideas. “Zoos are composed of site exhibits and the boxes that make them work,” he explained. “We were one of the first firms to think about those boxes. We could expand the concept of exhibit design by adding art, architecture and culture. That would add another depth to the exhibit experience.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

@ Woodland Park Zoo

The result has an incredible habitat with a state-of-the-art orangutan habitat that’s still considered one of the best in the world. “Our thought [with Trail of Vines] was we would get people into the canopy of the forest to tell the story of the orangutan in the forest,” Torre elaborated. “We did the exhibit on a 60-70-foot hillside so we could use a level boardwalk to take visitors up into the canopy of trees. You’re actually moving through that vine realm.”

@ Scott Richardson

“The trees were already there,” he continued. “All we did was not damage the trees and build the boardwalk out to engage visitors in that canopy and shape the orangutan habitat into the hillside so they would have lots of climbing structures. That was probably the tallest and most vertically oriented orangutan habitat at that time. It gave you the dramatic feeling of seeing the apes going up.”

@ Woodland Park Zoo

One of Ace Torre’s signature projects is China, which opened at the Memphis Zoo in 2002. It was the first zoo exhibit in America dedicated exclusively to Chinese wildlife and one of only four zoos in the nation to house giant pandas. “Our observation was that all the existing panda other exhibits were walk up exhibits,” Torre explained. “In the early 2000s, we knew a lot less about China than we know now. We came up with the idea of creating an exhibit about China and its fantastic architecture, gardens and art. In China, you go through the Forbidden City into a Chinese garden into a Suzchou pavilion where you could see the panda.”

@ Memphis Zoo

Designing a home up to the Chinese standards for giant pandas was quite the challenge. “The Chinese had an intense program where we had to build six holding spaces and two air-conditioned habitats for giant pandas,” Torre remarked. “We used the Suzchou style architecture for the pandas. Suzchou is to China what Kyoto is to Japan in terms of fantastic gardens and architecture.”

All the other areas of the complex required great research and detail as well. “We studied the garden design intensively,” Torre said.

@ Memphis Zoo

“I went to China three times to document the details and we created a great experience of a realistic visit to China for an average person. There isa video about the plight of the panda and then go into the garden with the zigzag bridge (Evil travels in a straight line so the zigzag bridge purifies you.) It’s very, very different [architecturally] in the panda dayroom exhibits as the building is black and burgundy with cream colored plaster. Then you go along the ‘Drasm’s Walk’ to the langur and the village with a gift shop and endangered species carousel. It became a real journey to China.”

“The Chinese ambassador Yang Jiangi at the opening asked who our Chinese architect was,” Ace Torre remembered. “I told him I was the Chinese architect, but it was based on extensive research to tell a real story. He thought it was ‘the best giant panda exhibit in the whole world.’ Once we got to the level of building museum quality exhibits, Memphis [Zoo] embraced the complex immersive exhibit concepts of dealing with wild lands, geography, history, art and culture.”

@ Memphis Zoo

The Memphis Zoo’s next project was Northwest Passage and again Torre served as the designer. This time, visitors went on a journey through the far north featuring polar bears, sea lions, black bears and bald eagles. “With Northwest, we evolved the concept from China,” Torre remarked. Designing state=of-the-art habitats for pinnipeds and polar bears involved its on set of challenges. “Polar bears are very strong so you need extensive restraint and management systems,” Torre noted. “Sea lions needed a realistic settling like the islands in Saun Juans. We used [a recreation of] the rockwork imagery that was a carved backdrop to the exhibit and created a 700-seat amphitheater for demonstrations. We did underwater viewing for sea lions and polar bears in the pavilion, which has been used for after hour parties, and gave the guests the opportunity to see them enjoy the freedom to swim and move.”

@ Memphis Zoo

@ Memphis Zoo

In 2009, the Memphis Zoo opened Teton Trek, an immersive experience which transported visitors from Memphis to Yellowstone National Park. “Teton Trek ended up being an iconic experience of the same level but in our own backyard,” Ace Torre elaborated. “The CEO Dr. Chuck Brady and I went to great Teton for research. We thought of creating this grand lodge where you could sit up on the porch in the shade in a rocking chair like you do at Old Faithful Lodge [in Yellowstone.] We created Old Faithful itself here in Memphis! Teton is a destination facility that features grizzlies, elk and wolves. It’s based on creating a holistic experience like you have in the Tetons.”

@ Memphis Zoo

@ Memphis Zoo

The centerpiece of Teton Trek of course was the grizzly bear habitat. “There are very few grizzly habitats that are green so we gave them enough space not to tear it up into a mud pit,” Torre explained. “You can see the grizzlies go after fish in a stream. There’s multiple viewpoints- the open moat, the waterfall. You can climb a path up into the Tetons where we recreated ‘Firehole Falls’. You have the boardwalk where you see the wolves in the front with the grizzlies in the back.”

@ Memphis Zoo

@ Memphis Zoo

Mostly recently, Ace Torre designed Zambezi River Hippo Camp for the Memphis Zoo. It celebrated the Memphis Zoo’s long history of caring for and breeding hippos. It also incorporated elements of the culture and people around the Zambezi River. “Zambezi is a destination facility where people can get immersed in the exhibit,” Torre stated. “The architecture, art, culture and history are all based on the rondavels from Africa. it’s got elements of art into it.” Alongside hippos, the exhibit featured Nile crocodiles, flamingos, mandrills, okapi and nyala.

@ Memphis Zoo

@ Memphis Zoo

“After entering through an endemic village, you come to the first imagery of the land aspect of the hippo exhibit which then descends to the river edge, with underwater viewing,” Torre continued. “You can also look down into the hippo and crocodile pools from the rondavel balcony. We did a lot of research and reviewed what Disney had done with hippos. Hippos like to bask in shallow water and be able to move up and down the bank so we provided all of those elements within the exhibit. We have night facilities that let them shift in and out easily and have the riverbank from them to lounge upon. The upper paddock under the trees is the grazing area."

@ Memphis Zoo

@ Memphis Zoo

“The crocodile exhibit is interesting since it’s all wet shift,” Ace Torre remarked. “They can shift back and forth in the water and spend all day in the water. It’s all a new management process where they use a clicker and operant conditioning. It’s safe for the keepers but comfortable for the crocodiles.” He noted Zambezi River Hippo Camp long term will serve as either the tailend or beginning of a larger African section."

@ Memphis Zoo

Another major client of Torre Consortium has been the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk. “I started with Virginia in 1993,” Torre recalled. “U.S. Fish and Wildlife confiscated two tigers so we did an exhibit for them. They had a great mayor, Paul Fraim, who was very supportive of the zoo. “ The firm then designed Okavango Delta, an African complex that opened in 2002. “Okavango Delta was at the far end of the zoo,” Torre said. “I had just come back from Botswana. The unique attribute of the Okavango Delta is when the river runs it’s a marsh and when it’s dry it’s a savanna. What we did was have you enter the village of Xaxaba (island of the tall trees), go up into the arboreal setting with the bongo, then go down to the pool that overlooks the rhinos and giraffes and then back up into the ancient rocks of Tsolido Hills on top of the night building for face to face views of lions and zebras. You explore in a lot of different ways and learn about the people there, all on what was a very flat site.”

@ Virginia Zoo

@ Virginia Zo

In 2011, Virginia Zoo opened the Trail of the Tiger, another major expansion. Among the species included were Malayan tigers, orangutans, sun and moon bears, binturongs, siamangs, gibbons, Asian small-clawed otters and Malayan tapirs. “Trail of the Tiger was a fun project,” Ace Torre stated. “The two main critters were the orangutan and the tiger. It’s all very Asian in its theme and detailing. It ends up being a journey through the hills and mountains of Asia.”

@ Virginia Zoo

@ Virginia Zoo

“Exhibits are like movies,” Ace Torre reflected. “We want our exhibits to make you laugh and cry and to create an emotional bond with the animals. There’s a concept that goes into a movie just like our exhibits, a body of experience that tells a story. It’s not just nature and animals but also history, geology and geography with a conclusion at the end. If there’s a great exhibit you should walk away with an emotion and hopefully a greater understanding and advocacy for conservation.”

@ Memphis Zoo

@ Virginia Zoo

Another project Torre Consortium was responsible for was Tropics of the Americas at the Palm Beach Zoo. “We got to do a tropical rainforest in a tropical setting,” he remarked. “You go through a Quintana Roo temple complex as a portal experience on a journey through the rainforest. You find the jaguar, bushdogs, tapir, capybara and monkeys on the way. The jaguar exhibit is within the temple of a thousand columns. We used the columns to stretch the stainless netting so it appears almost invisible. All the night buildings are within the temples so you don’t see them.” Torre noted the temple in this project is a good example of how to evoke theatricality in an exhibit.

@ Palm Beach Zoo

@ Palm Beach Zoo

Torre designed an indoor rainforest habitat for the Mesker Park Zoo, a small zoo in Indiana. While originally the zoo wanted to do a large Asian rainforest dome with orangutans, it was decided doing South America would be smaller, less expensive and house more exhibits. Amazonia opened in 2008 and remains the zoo’s signature exhibit. “That exhibit steps down a 45 foot hill,” Torre mentioned. “You start in the forest canopy and slowly descend to the forest floor and flooded forest. It’s very successful as it creates a destination facility year-round day and night for a zoo that used to be completely empty in the winter.”

@ Mesker Park Zoo

Another project Ace Torre developed during this time period was Africa at the Peoria Zoo, which doubled the size of the institution. “Where we built Africa used to be a city dump,” he elaborated. “We turned it into a multi-species African exhibit with a lodge at its corner.” Featured in the exhibit were giraffes, white rhinoceros, lions, zebras, gazelles, mandrills, red river hogs and African birds.

@ Peoria Zoo

@ Peoria Zoo

The Oklahoma City Zoo brought Torre on board to design its Asian region. The first phase, a state-of-the-art Asian elephant habitat, opened in 2011 while the rest, which will feature Indian rhinoceros, red pandas, Komodo dragons and cassowaries, will open in 2018. “We can hold up to 15 elephants within it,” Ace remarked. “We have a gigantic barn but is scale is eroded with an Asian village in front of it. You can look into the interior of the night building on the boardwalk and see the staff working with the elephants. We did a giant community room inside and gave the elephants the ability to move freely between three large paddocks. It’s one of the most green, inviting elephant exhibits in the U.S. and we are going to let elephants and rhinos share the same space.”

@ Oklahoma City Zoo

@ Oklahoma City Zoo

One of Torre’s most recent projects was Scaly Slimy Spectacular, a modern herpetarium opened at Zoo Atlanta in 2015. “It’s the first LEED Gold amphibian and reptile complex in the world,” he commented. “It takes you from a riverine environment through a forest to a desert. There are a lot of detailed exhibits in the gallery and a multi-purpose theater, grasslands and the Georgia pond. We used a lot of natural light to reduce the needs of artificial light for the vivarium interior.”

@ Zoo Atlanta

@ Zoo Atlanta

Currently Ace Torre is working on designing innovative exhibits and master plans for a number of zoos. Some of his current clients include the Los Angeles Zoo, Reid Park Zoo in Tucson, Memphis Zoo, Lowry Park Zoo, Peoria Zoo, Buttonwood Park Zoo in Massachusetts and Cosley Zoo in Illinois. “The kinds of exhibits we’re doing now have more attraction value than ones that came before,” Torre reflected. “What we’re doing is getting more people excited about nature and making zoos more destination facilities. I think we’re going to end up with a 50% increase in attendance of zoos, which will yield more conservation opportunities as more people will want to help preserve our living world.”

@ Zoo Atlanta

“We’re taken zoos from something that merely exists in a community to something with a high level of immersion attraction, making them consistently one of the three most visited facilities in their regions,” Ace Torre concluded. “We’ve created true destination facilities that will create a level of change. We were the first to do a comprehensive manatee exhibit and recovery hospital. Manatees were right at the edge then but now they’ve been taken off the endangered species list and only a zoo could have done that. Zoos are only going to become more important to their communities and the world.”

@ Ace Torre

#AudubonZoo #MemphisZoo #LowryParkZoo #VirginiaZoo #PeoriaZoo #PalmBeachZoo #WoodlandParkZoo #FortWorthZoo #OklahomaCityZoo #ZooAtlanta

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