Vertical Zoo
Buenos Aires, AR

The word “zoo” was first coined in the 19th century, but the concept of a man-made landscape of fauna is as old as human domination of the earth. The ancient Greeks had menageries, as did the Chinese and Roman empires, but the first historical reference to a “vertical zoo” might have been the medieval one in the Tower of London. Today 80 percent of the world’s zoos are located in cities, and a vertical zoo seems as inevitable as a vertical farm. A new competition in Buenos Aires, Argentina asked architects to design a vertical zoo for a location in a natural reserve on the city’s riverfront. Organized by Arquitectum and TodoObras magazine, the brief was to design a structure that would become a new urban landmark, one that would accentuate a growing area of the city and at the same time complement the natural character of the reserve. Biber Architects has designed a vertical zoo that is an urban take on Charles Darwin’s evolutionary tree of life, a phylogenic arrangement of species in vertical formation.

Puerto Madero is a growing section of Buenos Aires that was a bustling port until its canals and dykes became too small to accommodate modern ship traffic and newer ports were built further along the Rio de la Plata. After being abandoned for years, the zone was revitalized in the 1990s through investment from the government and private sector and quickly grew into an upscale district with luxury apartment towers, museums, designer hotels and restaurants and bars.

During the construction of the coastal highway in the 1970s and 80s, remnant materials from demolished buildings were dumped into the Rio de la Plata, causing a nascent island to form to the east of Puerto Madero. This man-made island quickly became inhabited by plants, birds and every variety of riparian creature and was officially declared the Buenos Aires Ecological Reserve, also known as Costanera Sur Ecological Reserve.

We sited our design for the zoo offshore from the ecological reserve and in line with the city's axis.
The competition challenged architects to develop a highly visible “vertical zoo” in this reserve, with as little disruption to the natural habitat as possible. The zoo was to be at least 100 meters high, but with a footprint of less than 200 square meters. We opted to site our vertical zoo outside of the reserve, just off the shore of the island, and to construct a series of lightweight bridges connecting the posh Puerto Madero district with the vertical zoo.

The zoo was conceived as an urban “evolutionary tree” with species arranged in a diagrammatic phylogenic tree, from fish to complex mammals and birds. Glass elevators carry visitors to the top of the tree assemblage, where they can climb down while visiting the inhabitants. Each habitat is an individual volume growing out from the tree. There are varying degrees of transparency and opacity, of open air and enclosed environments, that define these various habitats. Other “blocks” are dedicated to education and research.

This is the ‘building as diagram’; an allusion to DNA, typological organization and the family tree.