Located within the Palo Alto Arts and Recreation District, the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo (JMZ) has been a beloved city institution since 1940, offering children hands-on opportunities to learn about science, the environment, and the natural world through a modest children’s museum, classroom space, and a small outdoor zoo.
With their rich and diverse educational programs outgrowing the modest facility, CAW Architects designed a new children’s museum and zoo, in conjunction with zoo designer, Studio Hansen Roberts, that fundamentally rethinks how to capture a child’s wonder and curiosity for the natural world and how to create rich and interactive learning experiences throughout.
Organized around an exhibit hall, education center, and outdoor zoo, the new design creates a strong and visible presence through a large entrance porch and a variety of free outdoor exhibit spaces that extend into the adjacent surroundings; such as the stump maze, rainbow tunnel, and porch swings, all which reinforce a child’s viewpoint upon entering the museum.
The building forms fit a residential and agrarian vernacular with simple clean forms and shed roofs, echoing the surrounding neighborhood and inserting a modern interpretation on the historic adjacent structures of the Lucie Stern Theater designed by Birge Clarke. The building shapes fit in and around existing mature oaks and feature trees, where the buildings create theme-based outdoor courtyard spaces, such as the Jurassic courtyard, for specific educational opportunities.
From the outdoor courtyards and main entrance, the exhibit hall contains a variety of interactive and kinesthetic exhibits in which children can interact. Several large windows and skylights directly link the zoo with the exhibit hall, with some exhibits extending from the zoo directly into the museum. The museum crawl logs allow children to crawl from the museum directly into the center of the meerkat zoo exhibit creating an immersive experience where they can interact with the animals.
Envisioned as “Loose in the Zoo,” the entire zoo is designed as a large aviary, allowing a wide range of birds to directly interact with the children. The exhibits within the zoo are layered vertically to give kids an opportunity to view the natural environment from different vantage points.
The design allows children to experience the natural environment of spaces below such as tree roots and water ponds, while also creating spaces above, for children to explore up in the central tree to then look down on the various zoo experiences. Giving children different vantage points creates a richer and more diverse experience of the natural environment. Connecting the zoo spaces, the tree house runs through the center of the zoo with rope bridges, ladders, net tubes, and platforms to create a vibrant and exciting play-based experience for children.
Combining the different functions of zoo, museum and education center is what ultimately forms the unique experience that is the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo.
● Integrating the zoo with the park and the surrounding residential context.
● Designing a modern structure that compliments the adjacent historic buildings.
● Fitting an immense amount of design program into a tiny set of spaces.