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London Zoo Elephant House

Justine Sambrook

Scale and subtlety to match its inhabitants

Credit: Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Tecton’s Penguin Pool, with its sinuous ramps conceived by Ove Arup, is widely regarded as the star of London Zoo’s architect-designed animal houses. But the Zoo has much more to offer architecturally, largely thanks to Hugh Casson’s involvement. Casson was drafted in to design a ‘new zoo’ in 1956, following his success as the architectural mastermind of the Festival of Britain. The Zoological Society had begun to realise that architecture could create a more appealing and dramatic visitor experience and Casson was employed to devise a plan combining the classicism  of Decimus Burton’s  1836 Giraffe House with Lubetkin’s clean, modern lines. Casson’s Elephant and Rhino House, completed 50 years ago, has been described as 'zoomorphic new brutalism, marvellously expressive of its inhabitants'. A series of brick pens arranged about a central viewing area, it is clad in elephantine pick-hammered concrete and topped with conical copper roofs. The building is one of the few that can be definitively credited to Casson. He played more of an advisory than a practical role in his practice Casson Conder and Partners, contributing occasional conceptual drawings but leaving the day-to-day work to Neville Conder.