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 enclosures: 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.

Today the aviary is 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.

Visit London Zoo

Sunset at ZSL London Zoo


Select a blog

Artefact of the month

Every month one of the pieces held in ZSL’s Library and at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo will feature here as Artefact of the month.

Asia Conservation Programme

Get the latest on ZSL's conservation work in Asia.

B.U.G.S Blog

Find out more about life in our B.U.G.S exhibit

Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation

A new Open Access journal for research at the interface of remote sensing, ecology and conservation.

ZSL Shop

See the latest ranges, updates and special offers from our exciting new online shop.

Wild About Magazine

Excerpts from ZSL's award winning members' magazine.

ZSL London Zoo

A blog for lovers of ZSL London Zoo. Bringing you amazing animal facts and exclusive access to the world's scientific oldest zoo.

ZSL Whipsnade Zoo

Discover more about the UK's biggest zoo with our fun blog posts!

Discovery and Learning in the Field

Join the ZSL Discovery and Learning team as they venture out of the zoo and in to the wild.


Catch up on our latest Conservation Blogs


ZSL Whipsnade Zoo's elephant keepers give an insight into the daily goings on in the elephant barn.

Tiger conservation

Read about conservation of tigers in Asia.

Videographer Blog

One man is boldly going where no other ZSL videographer has gone before - the land of Mountain Chicken Frogs.

Wild Science

From the field, to the lab, catch up with the scientists on the cutting edge of conservation biology at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology.

Wildlife Wood Project Cameroon

The Wildlife Wood Project has been working in Cameroon since 2007 to encourage better wildlife management in logging concessions.

Penguin expedition blog

Updates from penguin conservation expeditions to Antarctica

Amur Leopard

Amur leopard conservation blog

Baby Giraffe Diaries

Meet ZSL Whipsnade Zoo's latest (and leggiest) arrival, a baby giraffe!

Biodiversity and Palm Oil

Follow the ZSL Biodiversity and Palm Oil team, based in Bogor, Indonesia.

Chagos Expedition

The Chagos marine reserve, designated in 2010 and currently the world’s largest no take marine reserve, is a sought-after spot for marine research.


Science blogs

Tsaobis Baboon Blog

Follow ZSL conservationists studying desert baboons in Namibia.