Palo Alto children’s zoo reimagined as a whole different animal

Construction recently wrapped on the redesign of the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo, located within the Arts and Recreation District of Palo Alto, California. Courtesy Marco Zecchin Photography

Construction recently wrapped on the redesign of the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo, located within the Arts and Recreation District of Palo Alto, California. A collaboration between CAW Architects and Studio Hansen Roberts, the modernized facility aims to recapture childlike wonder and curiosity for the natural world, while creating rich and interactive learning experiences.

Organized around an exhibit hall, an education center, and an outdoor zoo, the new design invokes a strong and visible presence through a large entrance porch, plus a variety of free outdoor exhibit spaces extending into its surroundings.

With simple, clean forms and shed roofs, the building’s composition inserts a modern interpretation of the historic structures of the adjacent Lucie Stern Theater, designed by architect Birge Clark. The building shapes fit in and around existing mature oaks and feature trees, creating theme-based outdoor courtyard spaces for specific educational opportunities, such as the Jurassic courtyard.

From the outdoor courtyards and main entrance, the exhibit hall contains a variety of interactive and kinesthetic exhibits. Several large windows and skylights directly link the zoo with the exhibit hall, with some exhibits extending from the zoo directly into the museum. The museum crawl logs allow children to crawl from the museum directly into the center of the meerkat zoo exhibit, creating an immersive experience where they can interact with the animals.

The entire zoo is designed as a large aviary, allowing a wide range of birds to directly interact with visitors. The exhibits within the zoo are layered vertically, to give children an opportunity to view the natural environment from different vantage points. The design allows them to experience the natural environment of spaces below, such as tree roots and water ponds, while also creating spaces above for them to explore, while glancing down on the various zoo experiences. Connecting the zoo spaces, a treehouse runs through the center with rope bridges, ladders, net tubes, and platforms, in order to create a play-based experience.

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