Designing a Career in Her Natural Habitat

Above: Architect Sue Chin (B.Arch. ’88) shares a smile with Julie, a 10-year-old gorilla, as they welcome guests at the Bronx Zoo.

By Michael Schiavetta (M.A. '07)

Check out Sue's alumni video profile.

For architect Sue Chin (B.Arch. '88), getting Coty and Pamela to enjoy their new home involved levitating New York City's historic Lion House on Astor Court to, essentially, fix the plumbing.

More precisely, the pair required a new filtration system to circulate 15,000 gallons of water necessary for their living space. The "levitation" came from digging deeper and beyond the building footprint-necessary to accommodate such an enormous program-while preserving the building's elegant Beaux-Arts architectural style.

But such creature comforts are necessary for Coty, a 14-foot Nile crocodile, and Pamela, his 11-foot partner. As part of the $60 million Madagascar exhibit at the Wildlife Conservation Society's Bronx Zoo, the pair is one of its top attractions. Housed within the Lion House, the exhibit is also New York City's first LEED-certified (Gold) landmark and one of Sue's proudest achievements.

She maneuvers among wide-eyed children inside the cave-like hallway outside the watery dwelling of Coty and Pamela (whose toothy countenances are safely behind glass), smiling at the crowd's reactions. "What we try to do here is create a sense of place, to blur the line between our visitors and the animals, and create that opportunity to connect people with wildlife."

The design has to be optimal for the animals and, equally important, keep them out in the open where visitors can see them. All the while, Sue adds, the exhibits must ensure that humans are engaged and comfortable. For instance, educational videos informing visitors of the need to preserve the island of Madagascar must be positioned in ways that offer maximum exposure for humans but don't affect animals in nearby displays. Upon entering the spacious lemur exhibit, she explains how a multi-layered "pillow" skylight system allows natural light to help heat the animals in the winter and blocks heat in the summer, while strategically placed ductwork provides an adequate climate for human guests, all within the same open space. And, as the primates leap among tree branches in the sunlight, Sue stops to observe an attentive human mother talking to her son as he interacts with a wall-mounted display that teaches him the bite sizes of various animals. She smiles and says, "That's exactly what we hoped they'd do."

As chief architect and vice president for planning and design at the Wildlife Conservation Society's Exhibition and Graphic Arts Department, Sue is responsible for finding ways to balance the art and science of architecture that traditionally centers on human occupation with the need to incorporate other species' unique habitats and requirements. In addition to the Bronx Zoo, the 114-year-old society designs and constructs exhibits at the Central Park Zoo, Queens Zoo, Prospect Park Zoo, and New York Aquarium, as well as manages 500 conservation projects in 65 countries.

While she was a student at the Bronx High School of Science, Sue worked summers at the Bronx Zoo selling memberships and teaching visitors about the value of conservation. When it came time to go to college, she chose NYIT because she felt it was important to study architecture in New York City. Her combined interest in wildlife, design, and education set her apart from other students at the Manhattan campus.

"I had to learn how to adapt green practices, human needs, and the needs of different species into one vocation," says Sue. Her senior project utilized the site of the Central Park Children's Zoo and explored the value of educational spaces.

"Sue brought new ways of thinking with respect to animal environments," says Professor John di Domenico, Sue's thesis advisor. Her project included design work that replaced the notion of caged creatures in favor of presenting animals in natural surroundings that were familiar to them. "It was not only different from traditional architecture but also a unique way to think about architecture and design shaping an experience."

Sue earned a design internship at the Wildlife Conservation Society in 1987 and landed a full-time position at the organization upon graduating from NYIT. One of her first assignments was designing an island research facility off the coast of Belize that harnessed solar and wind power to minimize environmental impact. "At the time, green design was barely a recognized term," she says. Today, such practices are typical of 21st-century sustainable architecture.

Walking among the visitors of the Madagascar exhibit, as she recites details of each exhibit and how it plays to both human and animal occupants, it is evident that Sue's career is a lifelong dream realized. "Getting to work on projects that I really believe in … not everybody is that lucky."

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Fall 2009 Table of Contents