“Billy was displayed there in the zoo in a simulated Earthling habitat. Most of the furnishings had been stolen from the Sears & Roebuck warehouse in Iowa City, Iowa. There was a color television set and a couch that could be converted into a bed. (…) There were no walls in the dome, nor place for Billy to hide. The mint green bathroom fixtures were right out in the open. Billy got off his lounge chair now, went into the bathroom and took a leak. The crowd went wild.” Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse 5
When the concept of the cage for keeping wild animals was superseded, a new, peculiar typology emerged: the vivarium, an artificial, aesthetised habitat, put in place to serve entertainment, as well as educational and scientific purposes. The vivarium tries to mimic the ecosystem of the inhabiting species, while functioning as diorama to set the stage for its inhabitants.
Architects enjoyed working in this ambiguous field: the penguin pool by Berthold Lubetkin and Ove Arup for the London Zoo reduces the penguin’s spatial experience to interwoven concrete slopes and a pool of water underneath – a cynic celebration of minimalism in modernist architecture: as a designed artefact, the vivarium mirrors preconceived notions of its designers.
The science fiction writer Kurt Vonnegut invites to explore a paradigm shift: before making assumptions about other animals architects should have thought about how designing a vivarium for their own species. What functions would the vivarium need to serve a minimal living environment?
How much space of private retreat would we grant? How would architecture be used to form a showcase diorama? Would we rather design a static or a moving environment, considering how it would be choreographed?
This scenario invites to scrutinize the typology of the vivarium as a container for life and challenges the architect’s superior position in the design process, exploring the essential role of architecture of the human habitat.
Brief Written By Johanna Just