CAW Architects shapes a new, one-of-a-kind experience for children and adults alike that will encourage imaginative exploration at an intimate level

CAW Architects is pleased to announce the completion of its latest civic project, the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo (JMZ). Located within the Palo Alto Arts and Recreation District, the JMZ has been a beloved city institution since 1940, offering children hands-on opportunities to learn about science, the environment, and the natural world through a modest children’s museum, classroom space, and small outdoor zoo.


A colorful main entrance invites guests to use their imagination while entering the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo (JMZ).
Photo credit: Marco Zecchin Photography

With JMZ’s rich and diverse educational programs outgrowing the modest facility, CAW Architects designed a new children’s museum and zoo in conjunction with zoo designer, Studio Hansen Roberts, that fundamentally rethinks how to capture a child’s wonder and curiosity for the natural world, while creating rich and interactive learning experiences throughout. Organized around an exhibit hall, education center, and outdoor zoo, the new design creates a strong and visible presence through a large entrance porch and a variety of free outdoor exhibit spaces that extend into the adjacent surroundings; including the stump maze, rainbow tunnel, and porch swings, all of which reinforce a child’s viewpoint upon entering the museum.


Large swings invite curiosity and play at the entrance to the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo (JMZ).
Photo credit: Marco Zecchin Photography


The education wing was designed to fit in and around the existing mature Oaks.
Photo credit: Marco Zecchin Photography

The building forms fit a residential and agrarian vernacular with simple clean forms and shed roofs, echoing the surrounding neighborhood and inserting a modern interpretation on the historic adjacent structures of the Lucie Stern Theater, designed by Birge Clark. From the outdoor courtyards and main entrance, the exhibit hall contains a variety of interactive and kinesthetic exhibits in which children can interact. Several large windows and skylights directly link the zoo with the exhibit hall, with some exhibits extending from the zoo directly into the museum. The museum crawl logs allow children to crawl from the museum directly into the center of the meerkat zoo exhibit, creating an immersive experience where they can interact with the animals.


Detail of the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo (JMZ)'s educational and administrative support spaces wing.
Photo credit: Marco Zecchin Photography


Inside the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo (JMZ)'s main exhibit hall.
Photo credit: Marco Zecchin Photography


The design allows for memorable experiences for kids of all ages.
Photo credit: Artem Nazarov Photography

Envisioned as “Loose in the Zoo,” the entire zoo is designed as a large aviary, allowing a wide range of birds to directly interact with the children. The exhibits within the zoo are layered vertically to give kids an opportunity to view the natural environment from different vantage points. The design allows children to experience the natural environment of spaces below, such as tree roots and water ponds, while also creating spaces above for children to explore in the central tree, while glancing down on the various zoo experiences. By providing different vantage points, children gain access to a richer and more diverse experience of the natural environment. Connecting the zoo spaces, the treehouse runs through the center of the zoo with rope bridges, ladders, net tubes, and platforms in order to create a vibrant and exciting play-based experience for children. Combining the different functions of the zoo, museum, and education center is what ultimately forms the unique experience that is the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo.


Inside The Treehouse, kids can roam freely above the animals.
Photo credit: Marco Zecchin Photography


The Treehouse anchors the Zoo and creates a structure for kids to explore freely.
Photo credit: Marco Zecchin Photography


Kids running through The Treehouse's rope tunnel above the exhibits below.
Photo credit: Artem Nazarov Photography

About CAW Architects

CAW aspires to change the world for the better, one beautifully designed project at a time. The firm’s commitment to architecture as an agent for social change is apparent in its award-winning body of work that champions educational and community-based projects. Whether designing new buildings on distinguished campuses, in vibrant downtowns, or in stately neighborhoods, or adaptively reusing historic buildings in need of careful rehabilitation, CAW gives buildings a new lease on life, infusing them with energy and economic vitality. The firm prides itself on its superbly designed projects that respond uniquely to clients’ needs.