A Sanctuary in the City

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A Sanctuary in the City

Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Star
Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Star

Native to Indonesia and Malaysia, Orangutans are currently found only in the rainforest of Borneo and Sumatra. The name Orangutan derives from “Orang” (people) and “Hutan” (forest) and literally means “people from the forest” in Mayan. Rob Shumaker​, Vice President of Conservation & Life Sciences at the Indianapolis Zoo, explained that Orangutans are one of the world’s most endangered species due to habitat loss and a slow reproductive cycle. Besides their size and long reddish hair, the most striking thing about Orangutans is their cognitive abilities.

“Look into the eyes of an orangutan, and a sentient being looks back” says Shumaker.

For Browning Day, the honor of being invited to be a part of this once in a lifetime opportunity to positively impact the world came with a big responsibility. Jonathan Hess, President of Browning Day and Lead Designer on the project went back to their natural environment for his inspired design:

“Because we had to give the Orangutans spaces that function as trees, we used materials that mimic the environment of a forest without trying to fake the look of the real thing. We had to go back to their original habitat to find inspiration.”

The design is unique and most intriguing. The challenge to maintain an architectural solution optimized for both humans and orangutans while keeping in mind the Polynesian vernacular that inspired the design – was great. Dave Long, the Project Manager, had the impossible task of coordinating all building systems – structure, circulation needs of humans and Orangutans, mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineering – for a building entirely made out of concrete and steel, with no back side and exposed walls from both sides.

A landmark project in the arena of animal husbandry, the facility affords the primates the freedom to travel in and around the exhibit building with greater mobility than their human visitors. At nearly 16,000 square feet, the design allows its inhabitants to ascend a 75-foot tall climate-controlled interior viewing space, access three outdoor yards or oases where they can go to find solace, and freely traverse and nest about an outdoor network of masts, cables and platforms – collectively referred to as the Hutan Trail.

A 2,800-foot glass curtainwall “leans forward” to allow the Orangutans to climb above patrons sitting in the lowest parts of the 8,000 square foot plaza. Designed by Jon Hutslar, the Project Landscape Architect, the plaza serves the dual purpose of patron seating and Orangutan viewing, with additional space for education and kiosk set-up. Mid- and lower-level areas can be accessed via long graceful, arching accessible ramps on either side, designed to convey the image of arms reaching out from the main exhibit building into the landscape, and inviting visitors to come inside. While the native environment of Orangutans could not be replicated in Indiana, the planting scheme created a landscape reflective of their natural habitat. The Center boasts a 12,000 square-foot sedum green roof that offers many features to the client, not the least of which is storm water sequestration. In addition, the green roof will retain a natural habitat over the site’s footprint, reduce the heat-island effect, protect and extend the life of the roof system, and add a great deal of natural beauty to the site.

Beginning in July 2014, the exhibit will also offer zoo visitors the Skyride – an aerial gondola ride that will bring visitors within 25 feet of Hutan Trail components. Through state-of-the-art exhibits and interactive computer games, visitors inside the Efroymson Family Exploration Hub are offered an unprecedented intimate level of interaction with the Orangutans. While adults are in awe at the sheer intelligence of the Orangutans, kids get tickled by being able to get the attention of such giants, each with their own personalities. Azy’s stature, dramatic features and intelligence make him a powerful and formidable figure.

The stunning centerpiece of the Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center is the iconic 150-foot tall Nina Mason Pulliam Beacon of Hope. This towering structure is illuminated each night by the orangutans with a tablet. Every time you see the lighted beacon, remember that a donation as little as $5 helps advance the Zoo’s conservation efforts in Borneo and Sumatra.

Daniel Overbey, the Project Architect, remembers when his 3-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son visited the exhibit on its opening day.

“It was especially fun for Norah – she doesn’t know what daddy does at work, but she knows daddy is helping the Orangutans with their new home. They were both excited. That morning will always be a special memory for me.”

Like most architectural projects, it was a dream, an idea, an aspiration. The task seemed huge, but Browning Day rose to the challenge. The design and collaboration between scientists and the overall project team turned an otherwise regular zoo exhibit into a classroom, a place of hope and a comfortable home for these primates nearing extinction.

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