The Twentieth Century Society

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Snowdon’s Aviary soars again at London Zoo

The Grade II* listed Snowdon Aviary being de-meshed in summer 2021, ahead of its restoration by Foster & Partners.

Image: ZSL London Zoo (Paul Noble)

A specialist rigging team have this week been ‘re-meshing’ the famous Snowdon Aviary at London Zoo, ahead of its reopening in the summer as a new primate enclosure. Over 200 mesh panels (3,800 sqm) were peeled away from the distinctive peaked frame last July, the first stage in a 12 month restoration project led by Foster & Partners, which had the backing of C20 Society.

The Grade II* listed structure, designed by Cedric Price with Frank Newby and Lord Snowdon in 1962, was the first aviary in Britain that offered visitors a ‘walk-through’ experience, bringing them closer to the birds in their natural habitat. It was pioneering in its use of a tubular aluminium tetrahedra framework and high tensile steel cables for support; drawing inspiration from the Festival of Britain’s Skylon (1951) and the work of Buckminster Fuller, it’s also seen a key forerunner to the high-tech era.

The 3,800 sqm of new mesh being installed on the Snowdon Aviary this week.

Image: ZSL London Zoo (Paul Noble)

The Aviary has been comprehensive restored and adapted to suit some new occupants, as home for the Zoo’s troop of Eastern black and white colobus monkeys. A new, more flexible stainless steel mesh has replaced the original panels – 50mm aperture and 1.5mm gauge, it’s closer to architect Cedric Price’s original vision for the structure. In the 1960s, Price’s plans called for a steel that had both tensile movement and flexibility, which didn’t exist at the time.

With an original intended lifespan of 30 years, the structure had latterly assumed a rather neglected appearance and was placed on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register prior to it’s recent restoration. It’s just one of 13 listed structures at the Zoo in Regent’s Park – among them the iconic Berthold Lubetkin-designed modernist Penguin Pool and Sir Hugh Casson designed brutalist Elephant House.

Designed by Lord Snowdon, Cedric Price and Frank Newby, the Aviary opened in 1965.

Image: RIBA Collections

As an unexpected footnote, the original mesh removed from the Aviary was romantically recycled into a pair of unique wedding rings for long-time supporters of the Zoo, Matt Robbins and Alison Russell.

When the animal-loving couples big day had to be postponed due to the pandemic, ZSL’s designers forged two wedding bands in the Zoo’s on-site workshop, repurposing some of the 56-year-old aluminium mesh salvaged during the restoration project.

Appropriate perhaps, as legend has it that Lord Snowdon also placed a secret tribute to his wife, Princess Margaret, into the original design of the Aviary: when viewed from above, the walkway formed the shape of an ‘M’ for ‘Margaret’.

Matt Robbins and Alison Russell show off their unique wedding rings.

Image: ZSL London Zoo