The “parc zoologique de Paris”, which covers an area of 14.5 hectares (about 36 acres), in the heart of the Bois de Vincennes, closed to the public in 2008 (ill. 1). Since then, the Museum, which manages the zoo, has launched a major renovations project with a scheduled reopening in 2014. The work has been assigned under a PPP contract (a public-private partnership) signed in February 2010 to Société Bouygues. We now know what this project, with a budget of 133 million euros, entails. After having dismissed the architect who won the contest, the plans are to completely demolish the zoo except for the “grand Rocher” which was restored in 1994-1997. Although it started with the best possible intentions (“create the most beautiful zoo in the world”, no less…), this type of project reflects a total ignorance of the exceptional value of this heritage landscape, barely 70 years old ; even worse, the result will be to replace a beautiful ensemble with an architecture which, due to current norms, promises to be little more than a standardized product.
Created between 1932 and 1934, the Vincennes zoo was inaugurated by the President of the French Republic, Albert Lebrun (ill. 2) ; after the Exposition Coloniale of 1931, which produced the admirable Palais de la Porte Dorée by Albert Laprade (see the articles), this was the second major “cultural” installation in the Bois de Vincennes during the period between the two World Wars ; it became extremely popular, as proven by a Claude François hit song in the 60’s and a famous scene from the film, La grande vadrouille by Gérard Oury. In 1965, it attracted 1.5 million visitors and for its 50th anniversary, in 1984, Vincennes was still taking in over one million tourists.
The zoo was designed by the great Parisian architect, Charles Letrosne (1868-1939), relatively unknown today, but who built many landmarks between the two wars, in Paris but also in Reims, Noyon and Vichy. A notable figure in the regionalist movement, respectfully attune to cultural sites and landscapes, at Vincennes Letrosne broke with the traditional system of zoo installations which, like the Ménagerie at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, used refined factory architecture, with classical references for housing the animals. For the first time at such a level, the architect imposed a procedure invented in 1907 for the Hamburg zoo by Carl Hagenbeck which consisted in creating a series of artificial rocks, formed by an invisible structure covered with a fine layer of concrete.
These rocks served as both areas for display and refuges for the animals, surrounded by moats, with or without water, thus allowing visitors to see the beasts without bars or cages (ill. 3 to 5). Some of them house technical installations (ill. 6), others camouflage service facilities (ill. 7), all produced with an amazing virtuosity worthy of the grandest decors on a film set. His concrete sculpting of the landscape displays a rare talent and Lenostre created a unique ensemble in Parisian architecture where the animals could be enjoyed close up without any danger in a totally new environment.
The zoo’s most spectacular landmark is of course the “grand Rocher” (ill. 8), 65 metres high which originally housed two water tanks for the park, while also providing a terrace with a view on top. With its Piranese –like structure of poles and beams and a layer only a few centimeters thick, the result is stunning, both for its technical and graphic prowess, providing a unified sense to the whole ensemble. Although it has been maintained in the current project, this masterpiece has no meaning without the other rocks which serve to set off its scale and also correspond each to a specific role, for instance the monkey rock, in terms of landscape and colorfulness. Now that cultural sites have seen so much progress in the last fifty years, how can heritage preservation still be seen as a selection of “beautiful pieces” without taking into account the whole ensemble ?
Poorly maintained, fragile, and currently in a state of abandonment, these concrete rocks, veritable “incunabulars” of our urban landscapes, are in dire need of restoration, as is the park with its vegetation which deserves to be saved : but does the planning need to include a bulldozer ? At a time when concrete architecture, with the most famous works by Le Corbusier, Le Havre by Perret (listed among World Heritage sites), Royan by Guillaume Guillet and the Halle Freyssinet in Paris 13th arrondissement, have clearly been designated for their importance and are acknowledged as forming part of French architectural heritage, demolishing the zoo at Vincennes would mean destroying a unique ensemble which is part of this history. This amputation would in fact produce another one, which is even more serious : since Antiquity and Plato, the rock and the cave represent one of the major themes of Western thinking. Along with the nymphs of the Italian Renaissance, the fake rocks in the Enlightenment gardens or those of Hubert Robert, without forgetting Cheval and 20th century film decors, the rocks at Vincennes hold a very unique place in our poetic imagination and should not disappear.
Sustainable growth, the latest trend, should also concern heritage and not only natur : in the name of knowledge and poetry, the wisest choice would be to restore the zoo at Vincennes, rather than destroy it needlessly.