London Zoo

The world's oldest zoo not only has an amazing range of animals, but it boasts a collection of unique buildings representing nearly two centuries of architectural history and designed by some of Britain's best architects.


Elephant and Rhino House, London Zoo, Regent's Park, London, with detail of concrete wall finish.

World-class institutions, such as  London Zoo, grow over time through many small and large-scale decisions to add new staff, collections and facilities. Opened in 1828, London Zoo started out as five acres, completed by 1827, laid out to the designs of Decimus Burton, who would later design the Palm House at Kew. Burton was the zoo's first official architect, a position he held until 1841, during which he designed buildings such as the Clock Tower, Giraffe House and Raven's Cage. As standards of animal husbandry have become more important, certain structures at the zoo are no longer able to fulfill their original function. It's indicative that some of Burton's buildings have been described as "follies set in an elegant garden for entertaining and curiosity" (1).

Mappin Terraces

quite unique in this country

The journal Building News (2) on 26 September 1913 was illustrated with images of the “notable addition to the attractions of the Zoological Gardens”, the Mappin Terraces. What seemed astonishing over a hundred years ago, still has the power to impress with its bold angular forms massed into peaks 70 feet (21 metres) high. The architects were John Belcher and John James Joass. What else other than reinforced concrete could have created the irregular shapes their design required? This was at a time when the material was still considered quite new by Edwardian architects. By 22 May 1914 the Builder (3) reported on the terraces, which were still under construction, and described it as being “quite unique in this country”, due to the innovative use of concrete and the water tanks concealed within the body of the terraces to replenish the ponds below with rainwater.

This artificial mountain habitat was designed for bears, goats and deer, though today it is the home for the zoo’s residents originating from Australia; despite the intention to provide a natural-looking home suitable for its original inhabitants, modern standards of animal care means the terraces are more suited to wallabies and emus. It was later adapted to incorporate an aquarium. exquisite example of modernist architecture

Penguin Pool

Penguin Pool, London Zoo, Regent's Park, London: the elliptical pool and ramp. © RIBA Library Photographs Collection;
Penguin Pool, London Zoo, Regent's Park, London, in 1934
© RIBA Library Photographs Collection 

With the help of engineers Ove Arup and Felix Samuely, architect  Berthold Lubetkin (Tecton) was able to exhibit the zoo's penguins in " exquisite example of modernist architecture" (4). Completed in 1934,  the result is a pair of interwining ramps, cantilevered above the elliptical pool. Like the Mappin Terraces, it fully explores the sculptural possibilites of concrete. Unfortunately the pool proved to be unsuitable to the penguins, and in 2004 it ceased to be their home.

Elephant and Rhinoceros House

Tecton were later chosen to design the enclosure for elephants and rhinos, but this was delayed due to World War II. Instead, as part of Sir Hugh Casson's  post-war  redevelopment plan, a new home for these animals was built in the functionalist Brutalist style. Its rilled reinforced-concrete walls were treated to expose the aggregate, creating a rough surface like the hides of its inhabitants, and the building's scale is big enough to act as a foil for these large creatures. 


Many major institutions have a rich history that have left them with buildings of significance, and London Zoo boasts a range of listed buildings: the Mappin Terraces, Penguin Pool, Snowdon Aviary, Elephant and Rhinoceros House and the surviving structures designed by Decimus Burton are just a few. Today, these and other buildings endure as vital pieces of architecture supporting the work of the zoo in promoting the conservation of animals and their habitats.  

Snowdon Aviary, London Zoo, with close-up of the structural end shearlegs. © Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Library Photographs Collection Section, plan and elevations from 1913, showing the profile Mappin Terraces, London Zoo. © RIBA Library Books and Periodicals Collection Penguin Pool, London Zoo, in the 1960s. © Eric de Mare / RIBA Library Photographs Collection; Elephant and Rhino House, London Zoo, with detail of concrete wall finish. © Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Library Photographs Collection

References (available from the  British Architectural Library, RIBA)

1. The buildings of London Zoo by Peter Guillery, 1993, p.3 
2. Builder, 22 May 1914, vol. 106, pp.617-621 
3. Building News, 26 September 1913, vol.105, pp.436-438 
4. Blueprint, August 2011, p.27

Article by Wilson Yau,  British Architectural Library, RIBA, 2013