Remaking a Roller Coaster into a Home for Birds at Lion Mountain

Byron Kuth and Liz Ranieri

We’ve completed a number of unusual adaptive use projects—repurposing a storefront for the GLBT History Museum, converting a historic 1880s stone vinegar factory into offices for a nonprofit foundation, and remaking an industrial shed into a bunkhouse for artists. But we never expected we’d be asked to turn a roller coaster into an aviary.

Lodi Bunkhouse, St. Helena, CA

It all started with a decommissioned roller coaster in Suzhou, China. Located at the foot of the iconic Lion Mountain, the roller coaster and its dilapidated amusement park are now central to a district that is rapidly growing into a high-tech hub.

Shishan Lion Mountain Park Roller Coaster, Suzhou, China

Once on the outskirts of town, the former amusement park would soon be the heart of new high-density neighborhoods being built to support the influx of high-tech workers and their families. So the municipality of Suzhou held an international invited competition to redevelop the site into a new urban park—Shishan Park—reinvisioning the existing open space, expanding its recreational opportunities, and capitalizing on the site’s natural and manmade lakes as well as the mountain’s historic significance and natural beauty.

(View from the Main Ring Road, Shishan Lion Mountain Park, Competition Rendering, Courtesy of TLS Landscape Architecure)

(TLS’ original Aviary proposal, Shishan Lion Mountain Park, Competition Rendering, Courtesy of TLS Landscape Architecure)

A landscape architect who we’d worked with before—Tom Leader of Tom Leader Studio—won the competition. As part of his proposal, Tom suggested repurposing the roller coaster as an aviary instead of dismantling it. Now that he had the commission, he needed an architect to design the aviary as well as the park’s other various buildings.

When he called us, he said, “You’re the only people I know who had designed an aviary before.” He was referring to one of a series of unsolicited proposals we created for San Francisco’s emerging Mission Bay neighborhood some years ago: there was a nondescript, circular traffic island that we thought would benefit from an open-topped aviary at its center. It was a way to create additional natural habitats as well as give the district its own character and identity. The city of San Francisco didn’t take us up on the idea, but apparently it stuck in Tom’s mind.

Mission Bay Aviary, San Francisco, CA

We loved the idea of repurposing the roller coaster. Inspired by traditional Chinese ink paintings, we suggested that the overall form of the aviary could be strategically reshaped with the addition of steel members clipped onto the roller coaster’s existing structure to support a new steel mesh enclosure. The enclosure’s shape would reference Lion Mountain in the distance and evoke a feeling of layered misty mountains.

“The Boats on the River” by Liao Pei – A Chinese painting of layered misty mountains

The 160,000-square-foot aviary will house around 20 species of indigenous birds. There is a new 10-story circulation tower, enclosed in steel mesh panels to support climbing vines. A generous staircase, with landings big enough to accommodate programmed events, wraps the elevator, but the main circulation is the “Infinity Loop,” an elevated contiguous pathway with viewing platforms that meanders from the park at ground level upward through the existing structure to the top level, allowing visitors close access to the birds and providing destinations for respite along the way.

Proposed Shishan Lion Mountain Park Roller Coaster Aviary in Suzhou, China

From the top level of the tower, the staircase and elevated walkway converge at the sky deck, which opens to panoramic views of the aviary, Lion Mountain, and new iconic development across the lake. A misted waterfall edges an opening in the sky deck and pours down to the lower-level interior pool. The waterfall is part of a larger choreography of hidden misters embedded along the aviary’s exterior on the lake side. Three screened vestibules provide secure access points of entry to prevent the escape of the curated wildlife collection. A new green-roofed animal care facility is nestled on the landside edge of the aviary and includes animal care rooms, food and refrigeration, offices, and holding enclosures.

(Shishan Lion Mountain Park, Aerial Map, Courtesy of TLS Landscape Architecure)

The aviary is just one component of the 182-acre park. Shishan Lake is also being enlarged substantially to accommodate recreational boating. An aerial tram will bring visitors up to Lion Mountain’s trails. A stormwater runoff system will capture and filter rainfall. Tom surrounded the park with a circular promenade more than a mile long, for which we designed various pavilions, including tea houses, picnic enclosures, a sports pavilion, public restrooms, and foot bridges. The programs vary, but the natural material pallet of stone, steel, and wood is consistent, as is a commitment to keep the structures as open as possible in order to frame views and allow pedestrians to pass through as they explore the park.

Location of Aviary and Pavilions designed by Kuth Ranieri Architects:

Shishan Lion Mountain Park, Pavilions:

Cypress Pavilions (Phase 2)

Flower Pavilion (Phase 1)

Sports Pavilion (Phase 1)

Restroom (Phase 1)

Lake Pavilion (Phase 1)

More than 2,500 years old, Suzhou has a rich history; at the same time, it’s one of the major hubs of China’s high-tech industry. As the city remakes itself for the 21st century, preserving its natural landmarks and connecting new residents to open space, it’s only appropriate that a structure that once whirled kids and families through the air will find new life as the armature for a home for birds. As adaptive use projects go, it may be atypical, but it does what adaptive use should: take what has gone before and refashion it for contemporary use, resulting in something vital and unique.

And if the city of San Francisco wants to do something about that Mission Bay traffic circle, we’re all ears.

Site Aerial View of Mission Bay Aviary, San Francisco, CA

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