The historic heart of Rotterdam Zoo was designed as a comprehensive work of art by architect Sybold van Ravesteyn and is listed in its entirety as a national heritage site. The zoo has begun a complete restoration of the 21 buildings, 15 of which have now been restored. With assistance of Dioraphte, number 16 will be the turn of the Forest Reindeer Stables.
It is only a few days since the lockdown has been partially lifted. It means that the zoo is allowed to admit visitors again. Somewhat awkwardly, a small number of people wander along the animal enclosures. Blijdorp is relatively quiet, which also may have something to do with the approaching storm. Restoration project manager René Reusen stares somewhat apprehensively at the huge plane tree which is squeaking and creaking in the swelling wind, just a short distance away from the forest reindeer enclosure. ‘This is also part of Sybold van Ravesteyn’s overall design. It is located at the exact diagonal running the entire length of the zoo. The animals’ quarters form a kind of circle around it.’ The architect was commissioned by the municipality of Rotterdam in 1937. With this, Blijdorp became the first zoo in the world to be designed in its entirety by a single architect. The design included a completely new zoo, including the interiors, the planting and the pedestrian walkways.
We are standing at the edge of the outdoor enclosure for the forest reindeer, a rare subspecies of the ‘ordinary’ reindeer. ‘Have a look, you can still see Van Ravesteyn’s signature here.’ Reusen is pointing at the trench surrounding the grounds. ‘He designed relatively spacious indoor and outdoor areas, which are separated by natural boundaries. He avoided the use of fences and grilles wherever possible.’ As we walk around the enclosure, he talks about how the zoo has suffered as a consequence of the pandemic. ‘We are in dire straits. We would normally invest our own money in restorations, but this time it has been almost exclusively financed by outside sources. There is simply no money left in the coffers. Which is why we are delighted to have Dioraphte provide us with all of the necessary funding.’
The walls of the outdoor enclosure are all still the original wood, which means they date back to 1940. Reusen points to the underside, where the passing of time has visibly damaged the wood. ‘After the summer, we will restore the exterior in accordance with the original design. We have kept the original blueprints. We will also conduct a colour and historical survey before we start.’ Then he points up towards the roof. ‘At some point, the slate tiles were replaced with a bitumen covering. I have no idea why they would have done that. Not only is slate far more aesthetically pleasing, but it is also durable. That is why we will be changing it back.’
Though Van Ravesteyn did consider animal welfare, most of his design was about architectural beauty. Moreover, ideas on the subject of animal welfare naturally have evolved considerably since the 1940s. ‘We have gained a great deal of knowledge about animal behaviour, nutrition and their natural needs from research,’ says Reusen. ‘Most of our listed buildings have been modified in line with the latest developments. During the renovations, we apply modern and sustainable practices. Moreover, we choose to keep fewer animals per surface area and provide an animal-friendly layout.’