50 years of the Snowdon Aviary

A trip along Regent’s Canal offers numerous highlights, from the grandeur of Regent’s Park to the peaceful bobbing of canal boats at Little Venice.

But one of its most intriguing sights is an angular structure that towers above the towpath at Primrose Hill, a plethora of poles draped with nets made of metal. This is one of ZSL London Zoo’s most famous structures: the Snowdon Aviary. And in 2015, this iconic structure celebrates its 50th anniversary.

Snowdon Aviary, ZSL London Zoo
The Snowdon Aviary opened the the public in 1965. Today, it's as visually striking as ever.

Pioneering design

The Snowdon Aviary was the vision of Lord Snowdon, renowned architect Cedric Price - whose projects were governed by the belief that architecture must ‘enable people to think the unthinkable’ - and Frank Newby, one of the most important structural engineers of the post-war period.

Inspired by the graceful movements of flying birds, the Snowdon Aviary was a truly unique structure for its time. Today, immersive experiences are on offer everywhere from theatre to cinema to tourist attractions, but in 1965 when the aviary was opened it was the second largest aviary in the world, and was Britain’s first walk-through aviary, allowing for close up views of birds in a number of habitats.  

Lord Snowdon with HM Queen Elizabeth II - Snowdon Aviary
Lord Snowdon with HM Queen Elizabeth II at ZSL London Zoo's Snowdon Aviary. Image (c) Central Press Photos Ltd.

It was the first permanent tension structure in the UK, the first to be built from aluminium, and the use of stainless steel forgings and lightweight welded mesh (the ‘nets’), were technological innovations for the time. The design and construction of the aviary is particularly impressive given the challenging nature of the designated site – along the sloping banks of the canal. All combined to create a visual spectacle, an enclosure where the inhabitants could fly up to heights of 24 metres, and were visible both from without and within.

The structure and materials were designed to be lightweight, and transparent so birds were clearly visible both within and outside the enclosure.

Snowdon Aviary
The structure and materials were designed to be lightweight, and transparent so birds were clearly visible both within and outside the enclosure.

Zoo changes 

The aviary experience wasn’t just set up to benefit visitors. It was built at a time when zoos wanted complete collections of the natural world. There was a desire to study species in their natural habitats, and observe their relationships with one another. The idea was that this understanding could help survival and reproductive rates. 

The occupants

When the Snowdon Aviary opened to the public in 1965, visitors were greeted with the spectacle of sacred ibis and yellow-billed egrets wading through the pools, while green-winged dove and Indian rollers perched overhead. In total there were 45 species on display, from five different continents.

Excerpt from 1960's guide to Snowdon Aviary
One of the original Snowdon Aviary visitor guides, displaying a diverse list of species.

[Until September 2018] the aviary [has been] home to species from the critically endangered waldrapp ibis to the majestic Manchurian crane, the second rarest crane species in the world.

Sacred ibis in the Snowdon Aviary at ZSL London Zoo
Sacred ibis in the Snowdon Aviary.

Whether you’re strolling along the Regent’s Canal towpath, admiring the views from Primrose Hill, or visiting ZSL London Zoo, look out for the Snowdon Aviary and give yourself a moment to appreciate the time, energy and creativity that went into one of the UK’s most unique and innovative examples of zoo architecture in the past century.

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