Gary Lee Awarded the AZA's Prestigious Wendy Fisher Award for Professional Excellence
(Indianapolis, IN) – On Tuesday, September 12, 2017, The Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) awarded its prestigious Wendy Fisher Award for Professional Excellence to veteran zoo designer Gary H. Lee. He is one of the world’s top experts in the field and is only the second architect to receive this honor since the award was established in 2004.
Lee, a native of Oregon who is both a licensed architect and a licensed landscape architect, first began designing for zoos in the Pacific Northwest in the late 1970s. In 1984, he partnered with another specialist in the field, Jon Coe, and established CLR Design, Inc., a Philadelphia-based design firm dedicated to the complex needs of zoological institutions. Along with his partners and clients, over the last several decades Lee revolutionized the ways zoos and zoo exhibits are designed by shifting the focus toward animal welfare.
The zoos of today are a far cry from the caged menageries of a century ago, or the hard concrete enclosures of the mid-century. “The younger generation of zoo and aquarium professionals might take for granted the design of immersive and animal-welfare oriented exhibits they work in today,” according to Palmer “Satch” Krantz, the legendary director of the Riverbanks Zoo & Garden who nominated Lee. “They may not be aware of the profound and forward-thinking changes in zoo design which were ushered in by collaborative, even revolutionary teams of which Gary was often a part.”
Krantz said Lee also made major contributions to “the concepts of immersive habitat design, ethology-based design, flex-habitat design, wellness-inspired design and other trends which have made the zoos of today completely different than the zoos of the past.”
In speaking of Lee’s contribution to the field when presenting the award in Indianapolis during the AZA’s national conference, AZA Board member Gregg Hudson (President and CEO of Dallas Zoo) said, “He is on a constant quest to improve the model. The model for our visitors, for our animals, and for our profession. His impressive body of work has helped to shape the evolution of what today's zoos are, and will have an impact many generations still to come.”
Lee is also well-known for his wide-ranging travels to study animals in the wild and document his observations in beautifully-illustrated and heavily annotated notebooks. Krantz adds, “[Lee’s] entire professional career has been devoted to directing his energies to addressing the questions of ‘what is a zoo, what should a zoo do, and what can a zoo be?’ He asks these questions repeatedly from the viewpoints of the visitor, the staff, and the animals. Gary travels extensively, and finds potential answers to these questions from his observations and insights on numerous safaris to Africa, on a boat in the Amazon, birding with zoo friends in the Caribbean, while walking in a local public park, or over dinner with AZA colleagues.”
Immersive habitats (also called immersion habitats) are naturalistic zoo exhibits that give visitors the sense of being in the species’ natural environments by minimizing or hiding buildings and barriers. Ethology-based design seeks to align the arrangement of exhibit features and visitor schedules to the natural behaviors and rhythms of animals in the wild. Flex or rotation habitats allow for multiple species to share the same environment (simultaneously or in stages), re-creating complex inter-species interactions that occur in the wild. Wellness-inspired and activity-based design integrates the fields of behavioral enrichment, animal training, husbandry, and design to improve animal activity and fitness levels while presenting to zoo visitors more active and interesting animal displays.
In addition to working on hundreds of individual zoo projects for scores of AZA-affiliated clients, Lee has also produced dozens of zoo master plans – extensive documents providing roadmaps for institutions to sustain long-term growth.
Later during the same award ceremony, Lee was pleasantly surprised when one of his most recently completed projects, the Elephant Lands exhibit at Oregon Zoo, was awarded the AZA’s Top Honors for Exhibit Design. Lee graduated from the University of Oregon with a Bachelor of Architecture degree, and later received a Master of Landscape Architecture degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Before co-founding CLR Design, Inc., he worked for architectural firms in Boston, Philadelphia, and Seattle.