exterior of visitors center with an open gate and brick pathway

Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo Raises Expectations for Public Space

With a new visitor center and entry sequence, Ross Barney Architects created an inviting new face for Chicago’s free zoo.

Founded in 1868 and abutting Lake Michigan on the North Side of the city, Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo is one of the last remaining free zoos in the country, meaning that its function is more akin to that of a public park than to that of a typical zoo. “When I was a kid, I lived in this neighborhood, and you just walked off a neighborhood street into the zoo,” recalls architect Carol Ross Barney, whose firm Ross Barney Architects (RBA) designed a new visitor center for the zoo that challenges the typically low expectations that people have for public space.

“Our project was, in a lot of ways, to get people to go in,” says Ross Barney. While the Zoo gets some of its funding from the Chicago Parks District, in recent years donations and memberships have become more important, and the center needed to help drum up more popular support for the Zoo.

visitors center with walls open

Because there’s no admission fee, and therefore no ticketing counter, programming for the Searle Visitor Center could be an expansive gesture to the public—a “gateway,” in Ross Barney’s words. The firm divided the program into two separate buildings and, by connecting them with a steel canopy laser-cut with a pattern resembling slender reeds or stalks of bamboo, created the effect of a grand entrance into the Zoo. On the left, a rectangular building clad in Midwest limestone houses the bathrooms. On the right, a U-shaped building clad in glass holds the visitor center. Designed to be fully retractable, the walls can roll away to fully open the center’s programmatic space to the outdoors. At night, a large steel gate cut with the same pattern as the canopy slides between the two building volumes, ensuring that no animals escape.

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The Zoo’s public nature meant that RBA had to consider groups of potential users with vastly different relationships to the buildings. It could have been tempting for them to design in order to offend the smallest number of people, a decision which frequently results in the kind of boring, utilitarian public spaces all too common in our cities. In light of this, the building’s retractable walls, a subtle design move that encourages people to see indoor and outdoor spaces as connected, is its most compelling feature. “The whole idea of the design was to explore human comfort,” says Ross Barney. “I think the design pushes the question: what do you really need to be comfortable?”

inside of visitors center showing roof pitches and open welcome area

The answer might vary depending on who’s being asked. A staff member or volunteer who has to spend all day on their feet inside the center, for example, might want the walls to remain closed to ensure that the temperature remains predictable throughout the day. A visitor, on the other hand, might enjoy the freedom to meander in and out.

It might also happen that extraordinary circumstances change people’s preferences entirely. When the pandemic hit, Ross Barney says, “the building was always open.” Given the strict rules that required social distancing and masking, the retractable walls that allowed the indoor space to become an outdoor one “became a health feature.” RBA could not have predicted the pandemic, but their design—which doesn’t underestimate people’s ability to engage with public space but rather challenges the public to inhabit buildings in a new way—made it possible for Chicagoans to take advantage of the public spaces in their city at a time when they most needed it.

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