Rasem Baban, Zoo Architect at Leipzig Zoo
Rasem Baban is head of the department for buildings, maintenance and construction at Leipzig Zoo, Germany, for 9 years. He was a real estate consultant and project manager before he joined the Zoo. Since 2002, he is in charge of the most challenging and rewarding projects.
Rasem kindly accepted to answer questions about his most exciting project, the establishment of tropical Gondwanaland in Europe, one of the largest constructions of its kind.
WAZA: What exactly is your role at Leipzig Zoo?
Rasem: My responsibilities as General Manager and Technical Director are zoo development and project managing of all our new projects, managing the construction, logistics and maintenance department and technical department (IT, building services). Also supervising the nursery (indoor and landscape conservation) is especially a very ambitious job since the opening of the tropical hall Gondwanaland and a very "exotic" challenge managing the feeding department. So this sounds really like a diversified job.
WAZA: You were trained as an architect; can you describe your career and what brought you to the zoo world?
Rasem: I studied architecture at the University of Applied Science Treviris. I graduated in 1994. My first career steps where in construction companies as site manager and then as project manager. After this, I worked as consultant architect for international real estate projects all over Europe for many years.
Changing to a zoo was motivated by my wish to create things with more sustainability.
The responsibility of our society for the complex habitats of our threatened flora and fauna has to be "transported" into the consciousness of the people today, more than ever before. Species and nature conservation are current topics and zoological institutions are the best possible place to make this demanding subject matter accessible to the visitors of all ages in an emotionally appealing, and at the same time, scientific way. The fact that this can only be achieved in connection with a credible, near-natural and species-appropriate approach to the animals that we were given to look after, constitutes a special challenge I always wanted to face as an architect.
WAZA: What are the main specificities of a zoo's architect job as opposed to any other architect?
Rasem: The main task of a zoo architect is to look after animals´ needs as if they were normal "human" clients who are in need of a new home. This demands a special grasp I can´t describe. A zoo architect also has to create natural (not trashy) theme worlds with the demand to fulfil the latest standards in species-appropriate husbandry. Last but not least he has to meet the visitors´ expectations in terms of encountering the animals.
WAZA: Could you take us through a typical day of your working life?
Rasem: That´s difficult because in a zoo there is no one day like the other. But of course some routine work is facing me as well. The first thing in the morning is to check my emails and other correspondence. After this, I have to supervise many meetings during the projects and in the early afternoon, I go on site-inspection rounds. Between this, I must clear many situations that nobody expected (a zoo construction site is a never-ending surprise). In addition, the rest of the zoo must be checked and my members of staff are waiting for feedback or other things. In the evening, I find the time to calm down and to create new ideas for the future.
WAZA: Can you describe what Gondwanaland exactly is, in a few words and figures?
Rasem: Gondwanaland is Europe´s largest rainforest hall (16,500 sqm) displaying over 40 animal and 500 plant species from 3 continents under one single roof. Visitors can explore the plant and animal world on foot, via jungle paths and suspensions bridges and by a world´s unique boat trip on our rainforest river "Gamanile" beginning with a trip trough a Dark Ride where evolution starting with the big bang until today is shown. An Asian village and Asian-style restaurant and conference centre is also integrated into the hall.
WAZA: You were involved in this project in Leipzig Zoo since the beginning; what was your role?
Rasem: As the Project Manager of Gondwanaland, I had to develop, organize and roll out the Europe-wide architecture competition. Next steps were to negotiate all constructions contracts, time schedules and the budget. I was also supervising the entire construction progress and coordinating all involved partners in this project. A very special job was the selection of the tropic plants and trees in their native countries in Asia and America and organizing the logistics in the background.
Creating the theme story near the entrance area (the Asian market place with temple wall, dragon cave and explorer's hut) with a famous stage designer was a new experience I never want to miss.
WAZA: What were the main challenges you had to face to build Gondwanaland?
Rasem: The main challenge was to organize the logistics between planting of more than 24,000 plants and 120 giant tropical trees (one of the biggest tropical tree was up to 12 meters high and 15 tons heavy) and continuous working process. A second problem was to create a stable climate (temperature, humidity and airflow) inside the hall during the planting period and to avoid bringing pests inside the hall, which can endanger the sensitive new plants.
The normal routine of bringing costs, time and quality together is a challenge in every project but of course, with Gondwanaland this reached a new dimension.
WAZA: Did you work closely with educators and veterinarians to make this project happen and how would you describe your relationship with the animals' specialists during this project?
Rasem:Without the close daily cooperation between architects, curators, veterinarians and educators this project would never have been realized. The valuable knowledge of all these experts was an especially important source I could always rely on. The success of Gondwanaland is an example of perfect interdisciplinary teamwork.
WAZA: Now that this project is finalised, what was the biggest and successful challenge, which makes you proud after all?
Rasem: That this "small world" will work perfectly and all animals and the plants will feel comfortable. To import all these tropical plants from abroad and to plant them just in time during a hard wintertime was a hazardous adventure. Moreover, that the project was well received by our visitors and zoo experts alike. In addition, the number of visitors has exceeded our expectations.
WAZA: According to you, what are the most important qualities to work in the maintenance/construction field in a Zoo?
Rasem: Firstly, you need a sense for nature conservation. Secondly, you must have to keep in mind the visitors´ needs as well as those of the animals. Thirdly, be open for every unexpected situation you will be faced (even in ostensive "under controlled" moments in a zoo!).
WAZA: What is your next main project?
Rasem: Our master plan "Zoo of the future" contains even more exiting projects for example the theme world of South America, the Asian riverside, an insectarium and so on. We have to evaluate this master plan with great care because the original idea to locate Gondwanaland in the middle of our Zoo area (Gondwanaland was then realized on a nearby formerly industrial area) left a white place on the master plan's map. This area must be planned anew. In other words, work is not running out!