Elephant Park

The task was difficult. Think of multiple shades of green and red, overlapped layers of thick vegetation merged into each other, the intricacies of leaves, branches and roots. Smell the moisture-laden atmosphere, charged with a sensual yet almost suffocating heat, the odours of ripe fruits and rotten ones. Think of a non-specific tropical setting, somewhere between the douanier Rousseau and Heart of darkness. See the colourful musa paradisiaca, Indian rosewood, palm trees, black pepper, calamus grass and rubber trees. Hear the songs and the plumage of peafowls, cormorants, black drongoes and Oriental darters.

This is the natural setting for the Asian Elephant of Southern India for which a landscaped zoo and a complex series of indoor shelters were to be designed within the framework of an invite competition. We are in Zurich here, home to delights other than warm tropical breezes and sun-drenched ripe fruits. No mimetic operation was to be undertaken. The starting point and the red thread for the project was instead to be found in an architectural element, an ancient ornamental motif found on an arched doorway of the same Indian region home to the elephants. Such an element would fill the geographic and cultural gap from Trivandrum's lands to Swiss valleys and provide de-contextualization. Hi- jacked from its original function and re-scaled to a territorial dimension, it would provide the framework for the programme to develop and for buildings and surrounding landscape to merge and interact.

The main leitmotif elements are all here: the constant changing of visual horizons, the ambiguity of natural and artificial, inside- outside, the ever changing, blurred border between these, the simultaneous stimulation of senses, the many kinds of tactility as reflected in surfaces and the perceptual experience of the place ordered by the immanence of a super- structure establishing relations and giving sense to the overall pattern, from topography to volumetric lay-out and to structural details.

Nature is present – if within an artificial frame – as water courses, clusters of trees, rocky protuberances, profound canyons and scenic promenades, interconnecting, articulating and merging spatial sequences to foreground the perception of a diverse yet consistent and homogenous environment.

HHF does not fear engaging with the rather controversial issue – since Loos at least - of ornament as a mean of expression, central to the project concept, nor with an ostentatiously fake mineral world that bears resemblances and analogies with Gaudi's works for the boundary walls and porches, the petrified vegetation theme built at the Park Güell or further reminiscences spanning from Van de Velde to Vegas or New Orleans.

Hence the most significant and recurrent feature of this project – and most of their output – is certainly a persistence in proposing clear, legible and bold connections between the main design concept, the leitmotif and red thread. Here we find the update of an ancient architectural decorative motif, the overall detailing strategy from macro to micro scales and an equally intimate connection between the architectural envelope and structural expression.