Spaces are connected via rope bridges, ladders, platforms and net tubes, encouraging children to wander freely.
Spaces are connected via rope bridges, ladders, platforms and net tubes, encouraging children to wander freely. ARTEM NAZAROV PHOTOGRAPHY

CAW Architects Lets Loose at the Zoo

The firm instills imagination and freedom into its renovation of the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo.

Over the past few decades, the role of the zoo has evolved dramatically. What first progressed from the personal menageries of aristocrats to major public institutions over the course of the 20th century has shifted once again. Gone are many of the steel bars and cages and in their place are immersive exhibits and expanded facilities for education, conservation, and recreation. 

A smaller, community-based institution like the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo may not have the same lofty ambitions as the sprawling animal kingdoms of the San Diego and Bronx Zoos, but it still plays a critical role as a cherished neighborhood establishment. The facility, recently renovated and expanded by local firm CAW Architects, combines a zoo, education center, and museum with a singular focus on children. 

“We wanted to create spaces that really ignite and excite a child’s imagination and wonder.”

Brent McClure

Founded in 1940, the museum and zoo realized it was outgrowing its modest space over a decade ago. It wanted a more modern iteration, but the design needed to complement adjacent historical buildings like the Spanish Colonial Revival Lucie Stern Theater, designed by local architect Birge Clarke in 1932. 

After presenting its ideas to the non-profit that runs the institution, the Friends of the Junior Museum and Zoo, CAW Architects won the commission in 2011. Delayed somewhat by the pandemic, the $33 million, 18,000 square foot project is now open to the public. 

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The entry's deep porch can be used as exhibition and play space. MARCO ZECCHIN PHOTOGRAPHY
The entry’s deep porch can be used as exhibition and play space. MARCO ZECCHIN PHOTOGRAPHY

Its entryway features a deep porch that can be used as exhibition space, pulling programming out of the museum and providing a bridge into the surrounding residential neighborhood. “We wanted to make it feel bigger than it was,” said CAW principal Brent McClure. The free outdoor space includes features designed to spark a child’s curiosity, such as a stump maze, a rainbow tunnel, and porch swings — all scaled for kids.  

The rest of the museum is essentially one large hall with exhibits organized around different ages and themes, providing a flexible space for learning. The building forms reference residential and agrarian design with simple, clean forms and shed roof to blend into the surrounding neighborhood. Its courtyards, entrance, and exhibit hall feature kinesthetic programming that encourage youngsters to interact with the exhibits. For instance, an “I Spy” themed exhibit invites children to find treasured objects. The sensory-rich exhibit encourages more than looking, asking kids to smell, touch, and listen. Visitors can discover hidden objects in unexpected ways, such as using a special UV light to find fluorescent minerals. 

Inside the zoo, kids can walk between, on top of, and into trees.
Inside the zoo, kids can walk between, on top of, and—in the case of this treehouse—into trees. MARCO ZECCHIN PHOTOGRAPHY

The building fits in and around existing mature oak trees, creating varied, highly immersive plazas. “We allow kids to get their hands messy,” says CAW principal Brent McClure. For instance, a series of crawl logs encourage small visitors to crawl from the museum directly into the center of the meerkat zoo exhibit. 

Kids can also experience the Dawn Redwood Courtyard via a wheelchair accessible deck. Throughout the zoo, kids can walk between tree roots and see integrated exhibits that show lizards and insects and animals that burrow. Water ponds behind glass walls let them view the natural world beneath the water. Spaces are connected via rope bridges, ladders, platforms and net tubes, encouraging children to wander freely. “We tried to fit as much of an immersive experience as we can in a tiny footprint,” explains McClure. 

Eschewing the animal captivity of previous eras, “Loose in the Zoo” is the prevailing design philosophy. That means, for instance, that the entire setting is designed as a large aviary allowing birds to move freely. Zoo exhibits are arranged at different heights so that kids can view the natural environment from diverse vantage points. Tree roots and the water pond can be seen at eye level or kids can explore spaces higher up such as in the courtyard’s central tree to get a bird’s eye view.  “We wanted to create spaces that really ignite and excite a child’s imagination and wonder,” says McClure. “That’s the spirit of this place.” 

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