Immersive Choreography: A Conversation with John Gwynne, Retired Director of the Wildlife Conservati

It could be argued there has never been a more talented and influential zoo designer than John Gwynne. During his tenure as Head of Design at the Exhibits, Graphics and Arts Department at the Wildlife Conservation Society, he designed many of the most immersive, detailed and compelling habitats ever built, particularly at the Bronx Zoo. Along with his team, including Walter Deichmann and his mentees Lee Ehmke and Sue Chin, and in close collaboration with Director Bill Conway and General Curator Jim Doherty, Gwynne propelled a movement for zoo design that told stories, recreated specific ecosystems and gave guests a strong conservation message. Here is his story.

@ WCS

After working for an extensive private aviary in New Jersey as a college student’s summer job, John Gwynne began his zoo career as head of design for the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence from 1975 to 1982. One of the oldest zoos in the nation, he was largely responsible for the redesign of an entirely new zoo there. “Providence had a new mayor and we convinced him the zoo needed to be replaced and could be a model,” Gwynne recalled. “It was closed for two years for total rebuilding, largely with federal funds. Instead of a sad old menagerie, we created a nature center for children with intimate views into natural scenes and even the first crawl-through prairie dog village. We also built a North American section with bison and elk, a native wetlands boardwalk and a polar bear exhibit. An old elephant house was converted into a Tropical American rainforest for monkeys and tapirs. We wanted more experience, less animal collections.”

@ Roger Williams Park Zoo

Later, Roger Williams Park Zoo did not have a director at the time and Gwynne tried to hire someone with experience from the prestigious Bronx Zoo. However, it turned out the Bronx Zoo was interested in having Gwynne on board. “They got wind of me and asked me to interview with Dr. Conway (the zoo’s legendary longtime director) for the position of head of design for the New York Zoological Society, based at the Bronx Zoo,” he stated. “It was arguably the greatest zoo in the world. It was a twenty-minute interview that lasted four hours.” The two quickly bonded over similar philosophies for zoos and their potential. Thus, in 1982, John Gwynne moved to New York as head of the Exhibits, Graphics, Arts and Design (EGAD), and the rest was history.

@ Grayson Ponti

Gwynne’s ambition for habitat design matched well with the Bronx Zoo’s focus on educating guests about the conservation work of the New York Zoological Society (later the Wildlife Conservation Society- WCS.) “Zoos can be potent weapons for inspiring conservation, just as important as field conservation,” he reflected. “I’m worried about nature becoming out of sight, out of mind as the global demographic trend is towards more than half of the human population living in 400 megacities, totally removed from any personal experience in nature. The only place they will get to see animals and nature is in their zoos. But, if we want them to care about animals and nature, we need to bring nature to them in cities and we need to build much better zoos. how can we expect people to care about lions and elephants if they have never seen them, ‘experiencing’ them up close? You don’t love something by just seeing it on a television set.”

@ Grayson Ponti

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

The first major project Gwynne worked on at the society was the groundbreaking JungleWorld, an immersive indoor rainforest building recreating the environments and biodiversity of Southeast Asia. “The building shell of JungleWorld was built years before its interior,” he remarked. “Initially, there had been federal money available for local governments that could put a project out to bid in 90 days (a funding program in order to spur employment.) When I arrived in New York, JungleWorld’s building shell had long been up and interior work was just starting.”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

Not only did JungleWorld recreate the environment of the Southeast Asian rainforests, but it showcased a story. “It was all about showing a story,” Gwynne reflected. “We wanted people to get excited about nature and used all the elements of design to make an exhibit increasingly exciting as you passed through it. We were trying to inspire people and create a world of people who care. Once, a trustee criticized us for too many linear exhibits where you were pushed forward on a choreographed path but this flow was done on purpose so that we could build anticipation and excitement. Later on at Congo Gorilla Forest for example, we spent a lot of time preparing you, building anticipation to see Gorillas in the exhibit and even commissioned a video about searching for Gorillas in nature. When the curtain goes up and finally the Gorillas are revealed, it’s very moving, and most importantly this kind of theater made the living Gorillas into the stars.”

@ WCS

@ WCS

“At JungleWorld, Bill Conway and Jim Doherty’s idea was to start out with Komodo Monitors, then bring visitors to Proboscis Monkeys, then to Langurs. then to Gibbons and, eventually, Gharials in a river,” Gwynne elaborated. “Both of these people love good exhibits and were very involved with every aspect. I arrived to help see the basic vision through, and importantly we were lucky to have Walter Deichmann as one of the key members of our team. He was a genius industrial designer who had been hired by the Larsen Company to repair a broken model of the early proposed interior, but who created an improved design. In starting all over again, we could make it incredibly immersive."

@ Grayson Ponti

@ Grayson Ponti

The construction process of JungleWorld was involved. The attention to detail was great. “Every Tuesday afternoon we had a construction meeting where the fabricators, EGAD, Bill Conway and curators would meet on site and work our way through the exhibit, space by space, tree by tree,” Gwynne remarked. “It was very much a team effort. We also worked on every detail of the interpretation and planting. Tree placement and selection was critical to help obstruct the building and make the experience a forest experience, not an architecture one. I was trained as a landscape architect, and landscapes for animals is much more important and appropriate than buildings per se.”

Dennis Demello @ WCS

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

“An exciting moment came with experiments with cloud machines, an idea pinched from orange groves in Florida where fog was used to keep the trees warm on cold nights,” Gwynne continued. “We tested it out and could fill the whole second half of the building with fog, thus creating a wonderful visitor experience of cloud forest.”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

Particularly important to JungleWorld choreography was a mix of deliberately placed alternating light and dark spaces. “The darkened gallery in the center, for instance, is really mysterious and fantastic by itself but importantly it also sets up the next expereince,” Gwynne commented. “You open the door to look into a luminous Langur habitat through a crashing waterfall.”

@ Scott Richardson

“Our objective was to seduce people to love Southeast Asia’s animals and great forests,” reflected Gwynne. “JungleWorld had been built just after the Vietnam War when Southeast Asia had been hell for Americans, but the society wanted to tell a different story: one about beautiful habitat for wondrous animals like Malayan Tapirs and Gibbons. At the time, the terms tropical forest or rain forest were general parlance, but we wanted to make the habitat more important and helped coin the usage of ‘rainforest’ as one word, now a commonly known term. I credit JungleWorld as an important force for creating rainforest appreciation, not just this name branding.” Jungle World opened in 1985 to universal acclaim and received multiple awards including the Exhibit Award from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

@ Scott Richardson

@ WCS

The Bronx Zoo would win an AZA award again for its next project, Himalayan Highlands. It recreated the temperate mountainous forests home to Snow Leopards, Red Pandas and Asian cranes. “I loved imagining Himalayan Highlands,” Gwynne remembered. “We found a really lightweight stainless steel mesh that could be oxidized to be almost invisible in the forest. No one had ever created a huge tentlike structure out in the woods with this gauzy fabric covering before for big cats and it enables us to create an intimate experience for guests as one entered the landscape of this wondrous cat.”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

“Ten years before, if a zoo were building a Snow Leopard exhibit, a zoo would have hired an architect to build a building rather than an outside habitat,” Gwynne noted. “I’m a landscape architect and helped bring about a new direction for zoo design, one that seemed much better for parks, zoos and of course animals. Jim Doherty picked out a cool northeast facing slope in the shady cool woods for these high elevation cats.”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

Himalayan Highland enabled the Bronx Zoo’s Snow Leopards, many generations of which were born in the 1903 Lion House, back into nature. “After we opened Himalayan Highlands, I remember running from my office in the zoo the first time it snowed to see what these indoor born cats thought,” Gwynne recalled. “The Snow Leopards were huddling under rocky ledges to stay dry, initially mad as hell at that awful white stuff. Now they love playing in the snow.”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

Gwynne pushed for Himalayan Highlands not just to be a habitat but a full experience. “We even moved a major zoo road to lengthen the exhibit experience and added a crane exhibit in an unused adjacent area,” he remarked. “We even spent a lot of time finding the right plants to recreate the alpine meadows the cats are from.”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

“We took great pride in devising a crane exhibit with a minimal barrier between people and birds,” Gwynne articulated. “The nearby Red Panda exhibit always surprised people, even zoo designers, as they could never figure out how the Red Pandas sat and dozed in the branch right in front of you. There were no moats or apparent containment. Red Pandas would sit right there, wonderfully camouflaged when the oaks turned russet red in autumn.”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

Gwynne and his staff won another AZA Exhibit Award for Baboon Reserve, which opened in 1990 and recreated the highlands of Ethiopia. “I loved Baboon Reserve,” he elaborated. “When I came there had been a project on the books to build a Gelada baboon habitat, but it was kind of ugly with high walls. Instead we got all fired up to bring visitors right into the baboons’ habitat and built an immersive experience where no one feels containment.”

@ WCS

“Instead, visitors feel they are entering the high Ethiopian world of the Geladas,” Gwynne continued. “Visitors go over little bridges and into thatched viewing areas in the center of the exhibit to see Geladas, Ibexes and Hyrax inches away. You go into their magical world. These baboons are totally vegetarian and ducks would walk their ducklings right by the Geladas.”

@ WCS

@ Grayson Ponti

Careful planning and attention to sightlines went into making Baboon Reserve as uplifting as possible. “In crowded New York City, we thought it was important to create a place that felt open, where you could feel the sky not even feel hemmed in by the trees,” Gwynne articulated. “We literally moved tons of soil atop an old hill once used for wild sheep so visitors saw the Geladas against the sky.”

@ WCS

The most exciting part of Baboon Reserve was that this exhibit took a highly social species that most zoos had only kept in pairs or small groups of one male and several females and created a large enough space where multiple harems of Geladas could inhabit one space. “This was Jim Doherty’s brilliant dream- to create a place for proper socialization,” Gwynne elaborated. “The animals could behave as they would in nature. in Ethiopia, Gelada groups spend the night on steep cliffs, safe from leopards, high in the mountains and in the morning move to feed in groups on upland grasslands. We created a big grassland to graze by day and behind-the-scenes bedrooms as a place to feel safe at night. When completed, Baboon Reserve was the largest primate habitat in America, home to multiple groups of Geladas, something I’m particularly proud of.”

@ WCS

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

In 1989, the Bronx Zoo opened Zoo Center, a renovation of the zoo’s old elephant house. “That wonderful-looking building has always been problematic for animals,” Gwynne explained. “In spite of it being in the center of the zoo, little by little it became surrounded by sad asphalt and pens. It was waiting for something to happen. Bill Conway decided it needed to have elephants there again, but it would be tough to pull off optimally. We were hemmed in by a Nineteenth Century architecture, but could expand outdoor space for elephants and move human circulation to create an elephant exhibit where they could be viewed in a forest with a green background, not dominated by a monumental building that dwarfed them.”

@ Jon Coe

Additionally, Zoo Center’s renovation would house critically endangered Sumatran Rhinoceros and Malayan Tapirs. “The society was part of the Sumatran Rhino rescue project, which was not an easy effort, and wanted space for the wonderful little rhinos,” Gwynne remarked. Gwynne felt the project did not quite work as planned. “As hard as we tried, the building dwarfed the largest of land mammals,” he looked back. “It works much better for smaller animals."

@ Jon Coe

@ Jon Coe

Around the time of Baboon Reserve and Zoo Center, the New York Zoological Society became the Wildlife Conservation Society to better reflect the society’s global focus. “We had become more of a global organization, not solely a New York one,” Gwynne stated. “Slowly the organization had changed from a zoo with a few conservation projects to a global conservation society with five living institutions in New York Society to bring nature to millions of people in the nation’s densest metropolis. The excitement to me was the potential to connect these New Yorkers to ongoing field conservation projects, plus bring urban people close to animals in nature.”

@ Grayson Ponti

The scale of EGAD grew and Gwynne thought it was important to be working both in New York and at some of the Society’s sit and nature. Thus, EGAD helped convert tired orphanages into upbeat interpreted nature centers in Nairobi, Kenya, Entebbe, Uganda and other key sites as well as designing habitats for the Bronx Zoo.

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

“Much was happening in the last decades of the Twentieth Century,” Gwynne recalled. “An ambitious primate rescue and breeding center was considered for South Florida and even an amazing project called ‘The Great Biosphere’ was considered by the society for Battery Bark that would feature both rarely seen aquatic and land habitats from around the world- animal spectacles, including deep sea invertebrates, a bamboo jungle for mandrills and mountain goats on the roof.”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

During the 1990s, Gwynne’s department engaged in a number of projects at both the Bronx Zoo and the New York Aquarium. “We did a dramatic and wonderful jellyfish exhibit at the Aquarium that was lots of fun, experimenting with two layers of graphics to reach two differing audiences,” he remembered. “It was information intense but didn’t feel overwhelming. Its interpretive concept was driven by data we got from studying audiences to develop visitor interests. At the same time, the design team started rebuilding many old exhibits in the Bronx- starting improvements to the World of Darkness with new lights, renovating World of Birds, creating Mouse House from the prior Small Mammal House and rebuilding the Pere David’s deer exhibit to make it more organic and bring visitors closer to the animals.”

@ WCS

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

One project was unexpected. “The very old aviary finally collapsed,” Gwynne said. “Its old steel pipes, built in the first decade of the 20th century, finally rusted inside the pipes and the whole aviary collapsed during a big snowstorm.” The fallen aviary was replaced by Seabird colony, home to magellanic penguins and other birds from Patagonia. “We tried to create the biggest aviary we could and used woven lightweight stainless mesh, as used in circuses underneath trapezes,” Gwynne said. “We tried to create the biggest aviary we could and used lightweight mesh used in circuses underneath the trapezes. The Society was doing a lot of important work in Patagonia and the new aviary was an opportunity to link zoo work to field work.”

@ Grayson Ponti

Around the same time, the Society won another national exhibit award for a creative, temporary, seasonal exhibit called the Butterfly Zone, made out of standard commercial greenhouse materials fitted out to look like a giant caterpillar. It was a simple idea that was so successful it lasted for years.

@ WCS

John Gwynne’s largest project during his career at the Bronx Zoo was Congo Gorilla Forest, a state-of-the-art immersive recreation of the rainforests of the Congo Basin and often considered the greatest zoo exhibit ever built. “Congo started out as a request from the mammal department for a new Gorilla habitat to accommodate the society’s fast-growing Gorilla population,” he stated. “On the drawing board, it evolved into a Central African exhibit to also showcase the society’s wide range of field work in the African forests. Then, as we started getting deeper into it, it became about how you do conservation through discovery, involving people and legal protection.” The decision was made that an exhibit subcharge would ask visitors to fund WCS projects in the Congo Basin and enabled them to vote on touch screens to be involved in conservation directly.”

@ Grayson Ponti

“We got excited about an exhibit showcasing all the work WCS was doing,” Gwynne stated. “The National Science Foundation provided an impart multi-million dollar grant to enable the society to vastly improve its exhibit process and results.”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

Gwynne, new EGAD designer Lee Ehmke (later Director of the Minnesota and Houston Zoos), Walter Deichmann, Sue Chin (later head of EGAD) and others at EGAD designed multiple renditions of Congo Gorilla Forest to get the exhibit started. “At one iteration we were going to move the entire education department into the middle of Congo as the then Director of Development thought donors would be more excited about education than Gorillas,” Gwynne recounted. “In big zoos, there are plenty of opinions. We spent probably five years designing Congo in total, working with curators with a multiplicity of questions- should we have okapis, should we have mandrills, how many groups of gorillas should we show?”

@ Grayson Ponti

@ Grayson Ponti

“Hundreds if not thousands ,of decisions were made,” Gwynne continued. “The zoo had a policy that, if we’re going to exhibit a species, the Society should help make a commitment to help sustain that species, thus we should have a breeding population, not a pair. This increases the footprint, hence cost.”

@ WCS

@ WCS

“We always tried to create the most stimulating place possible to get our audiences excited,” Gwynne continued. “For instance, we really pushed for Red River Hogs, even though they are really hard to have in a naturalistic habitat. They efficiently bulldoze everything. However, I had been to Central Africa and recalled sandy riverbeds in the dry season, so we replicated a dry season bend in a river with sandy substrate so the pigs could dig all they wanted without damaging the verdant forest directly above the riverbank out of reach.”

@ WCS

@ Grayson Ponti

The decision was made by Doherty to have two large groups of Gorillas live in Congo Gorilla Forest. Innumerable design decisions followed. “One was a discussion if the glass in the glass-sided visitor tunnel (which lets guests be surrounded by gorillas) should slope in or out. I thought, if the Gorillas were elevated, and the glass tilted over peoples’ heads, the gorillas would know they were in the superior position and might enjoy being there.”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

“The tilting in proved to work perfectly,” Gwynne continued. “Young gorillas especially love to pop out of vegetation and slap the glass right over visitors’ heads. Good fun for Gorillas. Not surprisingly, the exhibit was termed a primate exhibit where Gorillas could examine other primates. The exhibit was large and vegetated, so one exhibit design challenge was to devise multiple ways to encourage Gorillas who have the whole space to prefer to be up close to visitors.”

@ WCS

@ Grayson Ponti

Congo Gorilla Forest opened in 1999 and took immersive habitat design to a new level. Its success was due to the collaboration and attention to detail by the entire team. “We talked over every detail of the site plane over and over again,” Gwynne explained. “Lee might then sketch the drawings and I’d propose let’s do this or that modification. Dr. Conway would then say why don’t we do this too. Little by little we’d work our way around improving the whole exhibit.”

@ WCS

Congo was a collaborative effort. Charlie Beier, Sharon Kramer and a team of WCS talented graphics designers and exhibit interpreters in EGAD played an increasingly critical role to get the proper message across, not to mention the society’s incredibly resourceful and creative exhibit fabricators, as well as outside fabricators. “If done well, the whole team is invisible and the exhibit appears natural, plucked intact from Ethiopia or the Mekong,” Gwynne remarked.

@ WCS

The debut of Congo Gorilla Forest marked the retirement of Bill Conway after 37 years as the Bronx Zoo’s director. “Conway had said ten years before he was going to retire when he turned 70 and he turned 70 when Congo opened,” Gwynne stated. His successor at the zoo was Richard Lattis, who had previously run the Central Park, Queens and Prospect Park Zoos and had a somewhat different approach. “Richard was much more of an AZA director [than Conway],” Gwynne remarked. “Richard loves animals. Bill evolved to be more interested in innovation and had the burning desire to use the zoos as a tool to inspire people about conservation.”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

The Bronx Zoo's first major project after Conway’s departure was Tiger Mountain, an award-winning habitat for Amur Tigers creating a Siberian wilderness in the Bronx’s oak woods. “The zoo needed a lively new exhibit near the entrance as it was a long walk to get deep into the zoo,” Gwynne explained. “We were looking for a northern temperate species.” At the time, the zoo’s tigers could only be seen by the seasonal Wild Asia monorail so the decision was made to let guests see tigers much closer all year long as tigers were an important conservation species for WCS.

@ WCS

@ Grayson Ponti

Additionally, Tiger Mountain could also show the story of behavioral training and enrichment done by the zoo’s keepers, thus the exhibit was built so the keepers could interact with the Tigers and visitors could witness firsthand the magnificence of the animal and the care of the keepers right up close. “It’s wonderful indeed to see the keepers and tigers interacting, amazing and unforgettable,” Gwynne added. “The conservation imperative is so critical now for tigers too. We wanted to show you what was happening in Asia and came up with the idea of letting you climb into a poacher’s truck, see short videos in the forest and realize that only people can save tigers. We even experimented with an ahead-of-the-time outdoor technologies, now commonplace, to connect visitors digitally.”

@ WCS

@ Grayson Ponti

“The intimacy of Tiger Mountain made it special,” Gwynne elaborated. “We were trying to make you feel like honored visitors into their habitat. Director Richard Lattis really wanted keepers to be the stars of Tiger Mountain. That’s how moving panels were created as part of the exhibit, so keepers would do presentations among the visitors.”

Julie Larsen Maher @ WCS

@ WCS

Gwynne’s last major project at the Bronx Zoo was Madagascar, a complete renovation of the interior of the historic Lion House. “I had visited wild Madagascar, seeing the marvels of lemurs, chameleons and birds, and was charged up,” Gwynne recalled. “We had explored multiple new uses for the historic building- everything from a new reptile house to an Antarctic exhibit to a slice through Amazonia, but at the time I pushed hard to have the whole center of the building be a walkthrough lemur exhibit, a wonderfully strange spiny forest.”

@ WCS

@ WCS

The recession hit in 2008 and John Gwynne decided to retire from EGAD full-time in 2009. “The Society was cutting back and it was unlikely that innovative projects would occur at the zoo for years, so I opted to retire as a full-time employee but to work part time to finish some WCS international projects I had started,” he reflected. “I had raised some funds from donors for connecting people with nature and was determined to see them through. Now the second regional guide to Birds of Brazil has been completed and work continues, if glacially slowly on a Rainforest Education Center in Gabon, exploring Congo’s ideas back to the Congo Basin.” Sue Chin has seamlessly succeeded Gwynne as the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Vice President of Planning and Design.

@ WCS

@ WCS

“Great zoo design takes you to worlds you know nothing about, introduces you to animals you may have never heard of and in ways you didn’t know before, gives you intimate experiences and inspires you to love and want to protect animals forever,” John Gwynne concluded. “Zoos should be looked at differently- as inner-city sanctuaries to connect visitors directly to nature, filled with inspiring exhibits and animals presented in wonderful ways.”

@ WCS

“I’m incredibly proud of three decades of zoo designs, all different but connected together by their immersing visitors in fascinating places, exciting graphics and innovations for inspiring conservation.”

#BronxZoo #NewYorkAquarium

You Might Also Like:
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
0824BZ_3117TA
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
maruska
charlie
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-pos
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-post/2017/05/14/A-Life-Devoted-to-the-ModernConservation-Zoo-A-Cons
https://www.zoophoria.net/single-post/2017/08/03/Connecting-People-to-Living-Things-in-an-Emotional-

I'm a 23-year old wildlife enthusiast, conservation and animal welfare advocate, environmental activist and zoo fanatic who aspires to work in zoo public relations or education. I am here to share some insight into the world's best zoos to show all the great things they are doing. 

 

About Me
Search by Tags
No tags yet.

© 2017 by Grayson Ponti