SAN DIEGO — Just about any architect will tell you that clients can be animals. Architect David Rice's latest certainly qualify. You can't really blame them for being temperamental. They're still just kids, really, a young couple in their 20s. But they're big (350 pounds each) and loud and hairy, and sometimes they even spit at him.
No, it wasn't an easy job designing a new home for Memba, 21; his wife Alvila, 26, and a crew of youngsters. But Rice persevered, and, in March, the couple's new $12-million, 2.5-acre estate, known as Gorilla Tropics, will open at the San Diego Zoo.
Rice, 40, is the zoo's director of architecture and planning. Friday night, in honor of his contributions to the planning and design of the zoo, the local American Institute of Architects chapter will give him one of nine Special Service awards during ceremonies at a local restaurant.
According to those who work with him, Rice is much more than an administrator; during numerous workshops, he has been a major contributor to both the zoo's new master plan, completed in 1984, and the design of four new exhibits since: the Kopje, Tiger River, Sun Bear Forest and Gorilla Tropics.
Rice has worked full time for the zoo since 1976 and was promoted to his present post in 1979. Tall (6-foot-7) and congenial, he is not at all prone to blowing his own horn. But others testify to the important role he has played in reshaping the zoo.
"When it comes to the leading concept behind what they're doing, in both the master plan and exhibit design, it's David that's behind it all, but he doesn't take the glory on himself," said Johnpaul Jones, a principal at Jones & Jones, the Seattle specialists in zoo design who collaborated with Rice on both the master plan and the design of all four new exhibits.
Based on a concept of bioclimates, the master plan subdivides the zoo into climatic zones inhabited by combinations of plants and animals found together in nature. This is a radical change from the zoo's old days, when tigers kept company only with tigers and birds with birds.
The San Diego Zoo isn't the first to use the idea of bioclimates--Jones & Jones helped the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle implement bioclimates in the early 1970s. But Jones credits Rice for deciding on bioclimates as the most effective way of reorganizing the San Diego Zoo.
Gorilla Tropics is part of the zoo's Tropical Rain Forest bioclimate. The new exhibit gives the gorillas roughly 20 times the useable space they had before. Their new home isn't far from where they were before, but it is much more sophisticated, with room for a growing family.
"They are social animals, and they are pretty obviously big strong animals, primarily terrestrial," Rice said. "We feel there will be a group mass that needs to be attained--as many as eight individuals per group in two groups." (The exhibit will open with Memba, Alvila and four youngsters.)
"They're shy. They need to have a real sense of where their space is, in a place that they're comfortable in. If not, they look stressed out. They don't like to have direct eye contact. The new exhibit provides them with a variety of distances from people."
In addition to a daytime space that makes the gorillas feel more protected from throngs of tourists, they are getting a new nighttime bunker better-suited to their social habits. They used to sleep in rooms that housed one or two of them, but they prefer spending nights together as a family. The new nighttime enclosure will have rooms big enough for several individuals. It will also have heated floors on which the gorillas can spread their beds of straw.
Working Gorilla Tropics into its hilly site was tough.
"The gorillas used to be in a little enclosure on the side of a hill, but they need room to move, and we wanted to get them onto flatter spots," Rice said. "It was difficult in some ways. We ended up making flat terraces on big, artificial rock escarpments that became very expensive."
Rice has visited a real rain forest, and was asked how the zoo's rain forest stacks up.
"You get little snips of the feeling, but the main difference is ours is cleaner," he said. "Tiger River has got some of that feeling you get in the rain forest, but it doesn't have as many of the huge trees you see in the rain forest. The zoo's version tends to be more idealistic and gardenesque than the real thing."
Still, it's an improvement over old ideas of zoo design.
"In the old urban zoos, you were in a pedestrian street and the animals were off to the side of the sidewalk," Rice said. "This (Gorilla Tropics) tries to be a compressed piece of Africa with animals in it, with a walk going through it. We manipulate the barriers and terrain to make it so you don't necessarily know where the exhibit starts and stops. We try to give some illusion that the landscape goes and goes and goes.