The Portico Group has spent over 30 years perfecting experiential displays and exhibits.
COUNTLESS DESIGNERS WHO work with institutions like parks, museums, gardens and zoos have a ready-made mold that creates cookie-cutter displays for a variety of applications. The Portico Group, however, operates as an integrated rm that designs projects to respond specifically to distinct environments and their end users.
“The Portico Group is differentiated from other design firms because our projects are all centered around immersive, interactive and inclusive environments,” says Charles Mayes, principal and one of the founders of The Portico Group. “Our approach for each focuses on developing unique, tailored and crafted design solutions that emphasize attention to detail.”
“We don’t have a signature ‘style,’” principal Dennis Meyer adds. “Instead, our projects are designed to live in their contexts and be seen as inevitable extensions of their sites, communities and region.”
Launched in 1984, The Portico Group’s roots have always been in interdisciplinary design firm. The company integrates architecture, landscape architecture, interpretive planning and story-driven exhibit design to serve mission-driven organizations that are working to make the world a better place.
The Portico Group’s portfolio includes zoos, aquariums, public gardens, parks, open spaces, cultural museums, visitor centers and children’s museums. The company maintains headquarters in Seattle, but it has designed projects throughout the world. The Portico Group has the Fresno (California) Chaffee Zoo African Adventure, Pearl Harbor Visitor Center and Descanso Gardens in its portfolio.
“We have a well-developed understanding of visitor destinations where the guests learn from their experience,” President and CEO Alissa Rupp says. “Our projects exemplify service to the public in a variety of environments where informal education and free choice learning are the primary focus.”
Innovative Research Techniques
Over the course of its 32-year history, The Portico Group has incorporated the new ways technology has enhanced learning opportunities for visitors to the institutions it works for.
“In all types of visitor-centered design, trends include the use of multimedia and audiovisual treatments to enrich experience,” Mayes says.
In museums, for example, The Portico Group has seen consistent positive change in the extent to which they are consciously designed for everyone to enjoy. Today, many institutions successfully balance long-held exhibit traditions with newer standards for access and inclusion.
“Now, there is growing interest in creating environments where whole families can play, learn, exercise and relax together,” Rupp says. “From toddlers to seniors, these facilities offer activities and points of interest for all ages and abilities. This change translates into even further expansion of our ability to create museums that serve diverse communities.”
The Portico Group is dedicated to creating opportunities to connect people with nature and culture in meaningful ways. Working primarily in the public realm, the firm has seen its clients’ institutions increase their support for scientific research and conservation. In the field and in their own facilities, they are expanding their educational and interpretive programs to meet demands for quality science education about nature and animals.
For example, public gardens, by virtue of their local, regional and national stature, set the standard for preferred practices in their own communities. They serve as a role model for how to create a place of beauty and respite while offering visitors a complex, rich and compelling experience close to nature.
“At the same time, zoos and aquariums have had to become more entrepreneurial,” associate principal Megan Nielsen Hegstad says. “They are incorporating additional centers of revenue into their business model and marketing themselves as family leisure time destinations. These various strategies have resulted in greater complexity in the planning and decision- making process for new facilities.”
Zoos and aquariums are becoming more involved in noninvasive scientific research regarding animal behaviors, intelligence and social dynamics. One such zoo project that adheres to these trends is the Regenstein Macaque Forest in Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo.
Lincoln Park Zoo is researching the learning and cognition of macaques by building on the zoo’s ongoing, voluntary projects with chimpanzees and gorillas at the Regenstein Center for African Apes. For the new macaque exhibit, the design program includes spaces where researchers invite members of the macaque troop to approach and interact voluntarily with members of the zoo’s research team.
The Portico Group’s design for the exhibit provided two research station locations. At one, a research tunnel runs beneath the exhibit to let zoo scientists observe the macaque troop without disturbing them. Reinforced mesh screens offer the opportunity to hand out puzzles and potential rewards. This station has been nicknamed the “Hobbit Hole.”
At the other location, researchers are visible when interacting or observing the animals, and zoo interpreters describe and explain to guests what activity or intelligence is being studied.
“This ‘viewable’ research station has cozy ‘cubes’ that let the macaques try a range of cognitive tasks,” associate principal Jacob Dumler says. “The proximity lets the macaques see what their peers are doing unless scientists darken the ‘smart glass’ that separates them.”
Larger Than Life
Zoos and aquariums also are designing exhibits and habitats to be larger, more complex and naturalistic. As part of the planning
and design for the new African Adventure at Fresno Chaffee Zoo in California, the zoo aspired to create a large, flexible, natural savanna habitat as a home to a growing family herd of elephants. The habitat’s requirements included large pools of water
for the elephants to wade and swim in fully submerged, but also could be lowered to a depth of only 18 inches as baby elephants learn to swim.
This habitat also had to provide for the flexible movement of the elephant herd and the potential to occasionally separate males from the matriarchal family herd.
Also, the zoo wanted the capability to introduce other compatible species of African animals into the elephant home habitat areas to add to the richness, enrichment and diversity of their daily activity – all while making the environment look as open and barrier-free as possible.
“The elephant savanna habitat was designed to meet the zoo’s aspirations for flexibility, safety and natural appearance,” associate principal Jim McDonough says.
All the large, natural trees growing on the site were protected. Concealed animal passages – known as “creeps” – were incorporated for smaller animals, designed so they could be opened in the future to allow for safely introducing antelopes and zebras from an adjacent mixed-species savanna exhibit into the elephant habitat. Exhibit perimeter barriers were recessed out of visitors’ sight and constructed with natural boulders. A large pool with an underwater barrier was constructed to allow for dropping the level of the water on the elephant side while maintaining the level on the opposite side as part of the adjacent mixed-species savanna habitat.
Whether it is a zoo project or a design program for another institution, The Portico Group relies on the latest technological advances to deliver the best solutions available. Most recently, the company has developed in-house expertise in 3-D design
visualization, including the ability to produce detailed animation walk-through presentations of its projects for clients to use in community and donor outreach.
“We currently use augmented reality and virtual reality to enhance the 3-D exploration of designs,” Mayes says. “These advanced techniques bring together design data, technology and an almost natural way of experiencing a space, as if standing right there and looking around with your own eyes. This helps the entire client/design team understand, validate and communicate all aspects of the project before construction begins, from the most prominent features to the subtle, hidden relationships that might only be seen if you’re actually there.”