Saigon Zoo: Beauty and the Beast: The Subtropical Architecture of Possession

The 1998 guidebook stated that a merry-go-round of taxidermed animals in various states of preservation spun ceaselessly at the entrance of the Saigon Zoo. The zoo simply stuffed its animal occupants at death and then mounted them on the whirling platform. Sugar smeared children could straddle deteriorating camels. Morbid tourists could fondle crumbling emus. A dizzy mess of human sweat and tiger fur in relentless, mechanical revolution managed to be alternately intriguing, stupid, alarming and humorous.

When I arrived, the merry-go-round was no longer. Despite the fact that I have never been to a zoo with a preserved wildlife merry-go-round, the zoo seemed oddly incomplete without it. How did the zoo dispose of its dead, now that the merry-go-round was no longer in service? Pet cemeteries and special wildlife disposal services are few and far between, if not non-existent, in Vietnam. Expired wildebeests must grace the garbage heaps of Saigon; pretty little ibexes are the strange and useless finds of trash-heap pickers.

"Leave it to the French to create a cage which is not really a cage," laughed a friend of mine who, like many, studied French Feminist critical theory and postmodernism in the early nineties. She was referring to the Saigon Zoo’s Monkey House, which can be best described as a giant metal birdcage. It has the same plump curvy shape and thin vertical bars of the pretty brass penitentiary that housed your grandmother’s cockatiel.

The bars are roughly half a foot apart, or to be precise, large enough for a small monkey to exit and enter as she pleases. Monkeys leap through the air, winnow lice from the fur scalps of loved ones, scream, eat, lick and love within the cage while smaller monkeys slip through the bars, scale the cage’s exterior, grab ice-cream and fruit from the hands of babes and slip in again. It is a cold hard day at the Saigon Zoo, when a little monkey realizes she is not the svelte young thing she thought she was and can slip out of the Monkey House no more. The fatter, older, wiser primates placidly watch the screeching rage of chunky adolescent monkeys, halfway in and halfway out.

It would be easy to read the zoo as simply a surreal admixture of animals and architecture: the long ink black penises of zebras, the cages that are not cages, the elephants shuffling rhythmically to the piped-in macarena sound loop and the glassy-eyed, fur-clotted merry-go-round. Eventually, the sense of animal misery begins to mount. The original determinant for capture, which I assume to be a human pre-occupation with the possession and orchestration of beauty, sabotages itself. The animals’ colors begin to fade in captivity. Some are visibly insane. The cats withdraw. The apes hurl shit at their observers. The emaciated lions live in pens the size of trailer park lawns and they are spotted with sores. Prolonged captivity, as presently constructed, is capable of eroding an organism and its beauty.

This wholesale adaptation of the panopticon onto the architecture of captivity, be it prison, zoo, peepshow or mental institution, dramatically condenses what little is space allotted to the incarcerated. It erases the captive’s sense of privacy and ultimately eradicates the captive’s sense of being, sense of architecture and sense of being in an architectural space. The crisis of space experienced by the viewed is obviously not experienced by the viewer. The architecture of captivity suits the captor just fine. Maintaining perfect visibility of the object at all times can be powerfully exciting: behold the child in open-mouthed wonder at the alligator in his pen or watch closely the masturbating client in his peepshow den. Yet, the ability to observe at all times does not have entertainment value alone. The viewer requires a sense of security and consequently, physical separation. The architect designs for the needs of the captor first.

The zoo-goer knows this from the get-go: that the beauty will be modified by the architecture of captivity. Subsuming their discomfort, the average zoo-goer takes delight in seeing without touching, it is a zoological peepshow, so to speak. Lets say a zoo-goer could be completely honest with his/herself and go a step farther. Perhaps s/he would perceive the act of determining beauty as inextricably linked with observation and its necessitating captivity. They would realize how dependent they’ve become on the fence, the frame and the window.

The intellectual zoo-goer looks for ways to distract the mind from the misery at hand, endlessly asking analytical questions. How is space organized within a zoo? "How many different ways can you create a successful/unsuccessful cage? What is a good zoo? Can there be a good zoo, cage, or prison? Does good come to mean well designed? Good for whom? How do we design something that can imprison/contain but still allow for maximum observation, and yet still, allow for privacy? How to design a cage that appears "natural," as if the animal can not even tell it is no longer on the veldt?" Or the viewer can go the other direction and employ sensibilities marketed by Foucault. "How charming these old cages are! They are nostalgic, sadistic, and well crafted like corsets and riding crops. How ugly and beautiful power is! How ugly and beautiful captivity is! How do these external architectures mirror the architecture of the psyche, how we try to divide the animal other from the rational? What does it tell us about ourselves?! How ugly and beautiful we are!"

Granted, this is a rather loose interpretation of Foucault’s elucidation on power, eroticism and punishment applied to an architectural construct. Foucault directly addresses the architecture of captivity in Discipline and Punishment by focusing, albeit not on the zoo, but the prison.

In the 1830’s the Panopticon became... the most direct way... of making architecture transparent to the administration of power, of making it possible to substitute for force or other violent constraints the gentle efficiency of total surveillance. (my italics)

Foucault pinpoints an administrational decree and desire to create an architecture that is visually permeable and that reflects and radiates a hierarchical power structure, all in the name of safety. Society must be safe from the prisoners. The prisoners must be saved from themselves and safe from one another. The modern zoo also functions along these same lines, despite its reputation for human pleasure. Human administrators determine a structure of surveillance for fun, for beauty and for safety. The humans must be protected from the animals. The animals must be protected from both humans and the animals that could eat them. A modern day detail of panoptic architecture is the perceptual Robotics ICAM. It provides a perpetual view of zoo animals. These video cameras create a literally transparent surface that is both a wall between viewer and viewed/ captor and captive and a wall of power. Transparency, once only a concept, becomes a building material.


After I visited the zoo and before I left Ho Chi Min City, I met a pale elderly European man in the foyer of my guesthouse and we began to speak of the zoo. I remember that his hands were quite soft and were still and patient in my grip like small tame birds. A handsome well-spoken eighteen-year-old Vietnamese boy accompanied him. The boy companion said that he had been raised in one of the orphanages this European had founded.

"I cannot take in all of the street kids. There are too many," the European said, "but if the police find the street kids they place them in the state-run orphanages. They are like child prisons." He drank more tea and then continued. "So, I pay the zookeeper to let the street children into the zoo at night. They are safe from the police there. They can sleep within its gates." I imagined them sleeping amongst the cages. I surmised that it would be loud with animals’ breathing, roaring, crying throughout the night. The street children were like the littlest monkeys, sleeping in a cage that was not a cage, negotiating transparent walls of power and of surveillance.