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Designing for Wildlife

Paul Tapogna considered his thesis project in his final year of architecture school to be out of the box design. He created a baseball stadium designed to allow the spectator to view the game based upon a certain player’s position in the field, rather than a typical Roman-style stadium. With baseball fan Dean John Hejduk at his critique, he got a seal of approval for his offbeat idea. Little did he know, his architecture career would continue to follow an unconventional path. Today, he designs interpretive exhibit habitats for lions, tigers, bears, and more.

Mr. Tapogna is the Executive Director of Design & Construction at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The WCS works to save wildlife and wild places around the world while also managing five wildlife parks in New York City: Bronx Zoo, Central Park Zoo, Queens Zoo, Prospect Park Zoo and the New York Aquarium, located at Coney Island. More than 4 million people visit the parks each year to see exhibits of over 1500 species of animals. Mr. Tapogna is based at the Bronx Zoo, where the WCS is headquartered. He lives with his wife, Gwen Miller-Tapogna, also an architect trained at Cooper Union, and their two children in nearby Pelham, NY.

“I decided I was going to be an architect in 9th grade,” he tells us. His high school drafting teacher recommended both the profession and The Cooper Union. Mr. Tapogna took his advice, received admission, and enrolled in the School of Architecture in the fall of 1988. Mr. Tapogna worked in several nontraditional architectural jobs right out of school – making models in France for a former Cooper Union visiting professor followed by designing accessible homes for disabled veterans in the tri-state area – before landing a position at FXFowle Architects in Manhattan.

Lion House during reconstruction, and today

As a project architect at FXFowle, Mr. Tapogna worked on the renovation of the Lion House, an early 20th century building at the Bronx Zoo. Lion House is one of six Beaux-Arts brick, limestone and terra cotta buildings on the zoo’s original Astor Court, all now designated as New York City landmarks. At the time, they were state-of-the-art facilities for housing exotic animals. As standards in animal care advanced, the lions were moved to an outdoor facility. The WCS and NYC Department of Design and Construction hired FXFowle in 2003 to renovate the Lion House as a part-exhibit/part-revenue-generating event space. “It was a super complex project, involving a lot of structural work,” Mr. Tapogna recalls. “The construction was supposed to last two years but went on for four and a half.” However, the timing worked in his favor. As his work was wrapping up, a project manager position opened at WCS. Mr. Tapogna was hired in the summer of 2008 and has held progressive positions over the past nine years. He now leads a team of exhibit designers, architects, project managers, landscape designers and construction field personnel. “Our bread and butter is to design and build the exhibits that the public experiences,” he says.

While the WCS hires outside architects and consultants for major projects, the design department is responsible for the galleries, interactives, and finishes for projects. Graphic design is also part of the work, from wayfinding to interpretive programming. “Our interpretive programmers have a background in biology or zoology and understand animal behavior,” he says. “They help our designers learn how to design for say, gorillas and sharks, rather than a human family of four.” The team also serves as a project management group, managing many outside consultants and projects.

A project that has taken much of his tenure at WCS is the new shark facility at the aquarium on Coney Island called Ocean Wonders: Shark!. “We began working on Shark! in October 2009 and by spring of 2018 we will be done and open to the public,” he says. The project has been lengthy in part because of its complicated nature. His team has managed two consultant architecture firms – a design architect and an architect of record – and eighteen additional consultants, from structural and mechanical engineers to the life support system engineers and retail designers. But Hurricane Sandy is to blame for the additional delay.

Views of Ocean Wonders: Shark! From left: Coney Island boardwalk view of façade and typography; detail of Shimmerwall kinetic façade;
detail of Coral Rotunda Food Web mobile. Photos by Paul A. Tapogna

“We were weeks away from starting construction when Sandy hit,” Mr. Tapogna recalls. The hurricane not only put that project on hold but caused extensive damage throughout the campus. “Over the last four years, our job was to secure FEMA funding to rebuild,” he says. “We also had to go through a design exercise to make Shark! flood-proof.” Shark! will also earn LEED silver certification. As the building is on city property, LEED requirements are enforced to ensure that the building has a certain level of energy efficiency. “The fact that we encourage environmental conservation in our practices and buildings is important to me,” Tapogna says.

Working in an environmental setting was never on Tapogna’s radar. “A lot of people who go to architecture school – including Cooper – don’t practice traditionally and this certainly isn’t traditional,” he says. He advises current students who are unsure of their interests and career path to be open-minded to different opportunities.

“I never thought I’d work at a zoo!,” Mr. Tapogna laughs. “But there’s a lot of architecture and design involved in such a big institution as WCS, whether it's the existing buildings, historical structures, the holding facilities or the exhibit buildings.” Over time, he has also become more connected to the mission of the organization, which makes him more passionate about the work. “At WCS, we live with these buildings and use these buildings once they are complete. It’s an honor and a lot of fun to work on these well-known New York places. And if I’m having a crazy day, I can stop, walk outside, and watch some tigers.”