With 21 national heritage buildings behind its ornamental gates, Blijdorp Zoo is a truly unique piece of history. Of course, the animals living there are worth seeing as well! Conservation programmes at the zoo are helping to put species threatened with extinction back on the (tropical) map.
Words: Evelien Baks
In December 1940, the same year Rotterdam’s city centre was flattened by German bombers, the new Blijdorp Zoo opened its gilded wrought-iron gates to the public. It was an unusual sight in a city that, post bombardment, looked like a charred, gaping hole, but people were nevertheless simply getting on with life again.
Rotterdam architect, Sybold van Ravesteyn, incidentally also the creative force behind a number of train stations in the Netherlands, had been drawing up plans during the late 1930s for an urban zoo in the Blijdorp polder. Local government had decided that the old zoo in the city centre needed to be moved to the outer limits of the city.
The architect’s office was among the many buildings consumed by flames in the blitz of May 1940 but, fortunately, his design sketches had been stored in a vault and were thus spared. Van Ravesteyn moved his business to the zoo grounds, which were under construction at the time. From there, he continued to work on what is now considered one of the continent’s most beautiful zoos, not only for the sheer number of exceptional buildings within its fences, but also for its beautiful gardens and the rare and endangered species that Blijdorp Zoo has for many years been committed to. Blijdorp has breeding programmes in place for many of them aiming to prevent their extinction.
A remarkable aspect of zoo’s design is that the landscaping, the 20-plus detached buildings, walking routes and greenery were all singlehandedly designed by Van Ravesteyn. Van Ravesteyn created a wonderful world; a dream garden where animals were not crammed behind fences but could instead peer over ditches at the zoo’s visitors and vice versa. This was quite a progressive approach for its time.
Van Ravesteyn created lines and curving shapes in keeping with classical antiquity traditions. He placed a ‘Medusa’ at the head of a scratching column, used for years by elephants to rub up against, giving their thick hides a good scratch. In the distance, a statue of Orpheus towers over the animals and the streams of visitors. Behind the statue, Ethiopian geladas (grass-eating monkeys) rummage around their pen, gathering up green morsels. The monkeys are a main attraction as Blijdorp Zoo is the only place in the Netherlands where these special animals can be observed.
To get a greater sense of Blijdorp’s history, take your time wandering past the heritage buildings, most of which emanate the grandeur of a by-gone era. Before buying your tickets at Blijdorp’s entrance, take a moment to crouch down and look at the ceramic fish and starfish placed at a child’s eye level and then turn your gaze up to the elegant lettering on the roof. The charming Winkel van Sinkel is immediately behind the entrance; a little shop where visitors once bought a postcard as proof that they had been to the most beautiful zoo in the country. Like many other buildings on the grounds, the semicircle shop has in recent years been completely restored.
Many of the heritage buildings have housed a parade of animals over the years. For a while, giraffes and later sea otters lived in the teahouse that bears the name ‘Gate of Asia’. After more than half a century, a restored wing of the large ‘Rivièrahal’ is now the stomping ground of the endangered black rhino. There was tremendous jubilation back in 2017 when, for the second time in the history of Blijdorp, and the Netherlands for that matter, a black rhino was born. It had been 57 years since visitors had first enjoyed watching a new born black rhino taking its first wobbly steps at the zoo.
In the past, a large portion of the zoo’s inhabitants lived on concrete floors. Great efforts have been made in recent times to make the animals’ living environments more natural and particular attention is given to the animal’s welfare. Fauna and exotic hut shelters recreate an African landscape in one enclosure. In another, you could be in Asia, watching a lion toying with a nice big chunk of meat while his three cubs tumble over one another nearby. These beautiful animals are part of a special ‘reserve’ population, bred to help prevent the species’ extinction – critical work, as the Asiatic lion’s natural habitat is limited to one very small area in India.
The best way to discover all that Blijdorp has to offer might be to first explore each heritage building from top to bottom, taking in every detail such as the animal figures up on the roof, the many neo-baroque features, or a particularly well-preserved hatch where you can just imagine how lusty lions would have once wriggled their way through. Then focus on the zoo’s residents in their in and outdoor enclosures. Or focus on the animals first, then admire Van Ravesteyn’s architecture, within which, a special part of Rotterdam’s history has been written.