London Zoo’s Hidden Secrets

So, you think you’re a Londoner? And part of that, of course, is paying no attention whatsoever to the biggest London attractions. London Eye? Who cares! You can see that far from the balcony of your high rise flat! Madame Tussauds? You think you rode past it on a bus once when it was raining. London Zoo? Not since that school trip in year 3. And anyone who arrives to London and settles here, immediately also adopts our native disdain for these fixtures with ‘too expensive’ and ‘SUCH a tourist trap’!

But has it ever occurred to you to visit the Zoo not because of the pygmy hippos or the tree sloth? To skip the snake pit and smells, and seek out instead the architectural highlights London Zoo is hiding even better than the King Cobra?

Penguin Pool, Lubetkin, Grade I Listed, 1934

Soviet émigré, Berthold Lubetkin’s Penguin Pool was one of the first uses of reinforced concrete. Ok, super strong concrete doesn’t sound exciting yet – but wait till you get in there; we might be a spoiled audience in 2015, but seeing the striking, interlocking spiral ramps will make you understand why it was such a draw to the Londoners of 1930s.

Not many pools can lay claim to being of structural significance, and the Grade I listing the Pool currently holds is testament to being a fine example of British Modernism. Unfortunately, penguins are now banned from bathing in the extraordinary concrete construct; turns out the smooth surfaces caused the birds to suffer previously unknown joint conditions, as well as being too shallow to allow the penguins to frolic and dive. What’s more, there’s no facility for the birds to burrow; which is part of their courting ritual. All in all, a sad case of ‘bye, bye, birdie!’ but a brilliant case for secret sightseeing without fluttering distractions!

Elephant and Rhinoceros House, Casson, Conder and Partners, Grade II Listed, 1965

Sir Hugh Casson, famed architect who rose to prominence in the 50s, saw more opportunities to incorporate challenging architecture into the confines of the Zoo. The Elephant and Rhinoceros House is a curved structure that integrates natural light and a considerate approach to its sensitive site on the edge of Regents Park.

The gritty, textured façade of pick-hammered concrete, lined with brick could be labelled ‘New Brutalism’, however one might also suggest that it’s a practical material choice. How else would you protect the structure from the head-butt of a 4000kg African elephant? Possibly Casson even thought to curve the exterior walls to distribute the force of impact over a greater area. Inside, the animal dens and Elephant Pool can be viewed from a lower, sunken viewing space. This is the spot to observe the animals at play; it’s dimly lit, and the timber beams create an almost cosy sense of closeness with these beasts. You feel like you are on the Plains of Africa, spying on safari. Maybe we can go as far to call it an ‘Urban Savannah’…

But, like with the Penguin Pool, the elephants and rhinos are no longer in the ‘Casson Pavilion’ (as it is also sometimes called). After the death of 3 zookeepers in 2 years, London Zoo decided enough elephant evil had been wrought upon their staff, and exiled them to Whipsnade Wild Animal Park in Bedfordshire. (Of course I’m joking; though The Telegraph is convinced they ‘meant to kill zoo-keeper’, alluding to the tragic skull-trampling of Jim Robinson in 2001.)

Snowdon Aviary, Antony Armstrong-Jones (Lord Snowdon) and Cedric Price, Grade II*, 1962

The Snowdon Aviary is the incredible angular structure that can be viewed by the Public from Regent’s Canal. The form of the enclosure is inspired by the sinuous movement of birds in flight. In 1965 when the aviary was officially opened, it was the second largest aviary in the world and the first you could walk through in the UK. This unique viewing experience is still as captivating today; it is unnerving as well as thrilling to see the birds up-close and personal; feeding time is especially awe-inspiring, a scramble of feathers and a shock of colours.

As well as the experience of the birds, the architecture has a credible place in the history of London buildings. The Snowdon Aviary was the first permanent tension structure in Britain, innovatively using lightweight mesh to create a visual spectacle. The site is incredibly complex and the construction of this project on the sloping bank of the canal was particularly challenging. All in all, the tessellated structure allows the birds to fly to a maximum height of 24 meters… Definitely worth a lazy Sunday stroll down Regent’s Canal to see them soaring up.

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