The Snowdon Aviary in 2010. Photo by Tony Higsett.

Lord Snowdon Co-Designed the World's Strangest Aviary

The Earl of Snowdon—Princess Margaret's husband—teamed up with "anti-architect" Cedric Price and structural engineer Frank Newby to build an improbable, ambitious home for the London Zoo's birds.

by Noah Chasin
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Mar 5 2018, 3:31pm

The Snowdon Aviary in 2010. Photo by Tony Higsett.

In 1965, the London Zoo opened its Snowdon Aviary. It was the first walk-through aviary in the UK—and the world’s second largest —allowing for a view of its winged inhabitants from both inside and outside the compound. Forty-five different species occupied the space’s soaring nooks and crannies, including Hartlaub’s Turacos, Von der Decken’s Hornbills, and Fulvous Whistling Ducks, providing an ornithological experience unlike any other on the continent. Still, initial public opinion was mixed over both its steep cost of £120,000, and its unusual, undulating, parabolic curves. The London Times described it simply as “bizarre.” But a televised visit by Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret shortly after the opening (in which a Pathé News broadcaster compliments the “impeccable” manners of a cheetah as it meets the queen) demonstrated to a wary public that the attraction was both safe and breathtaking.

The diaphanous, sprawling enclosure, stretching some 80 feet high, was composed of aluminum tubes fashioned into tetrahedrons. The material fulfilled the Zoo staff’s insistence on the structure being “maintenance free, or [requiring] as little maintenance as possible,” and was configured into a very thin series of planes. A welded, black, anodized aluminum mesh, when draped across the surfaces of the tetrahedrons, enclosed the space and prevented any flights for freedom.

The structure is typically attributed to Cedric Price, but the initial inspiration for the Aviary came from Antony “Tony” Armstrong-Jones, the first Earl of Snowdon and the husband of Princess Margaret, a famously unhappy, vitriol-laced relationship. A photographer by trade and the son of a London barrister, his marriage, the first between a member of the royal family and a non-aristocrat since the 16th century, granted him his earldom. While staying at the Royal Lodge in Windsor, Snowdon had spent some time producing a small-scale model of the aviary out of balsa wood, copper tubing, and picture wire. Snowdon’s leisurely tinkering earned him the ZSL commission from Prince Philip, his brother-in-law and the president of the Royal Zoological Society.

Snowdon had studied architecture at Cambridge but, after failing his second-year exams, was asked to leave and never completed the degree. So he turned to Cedric Price to help realize his vision. Price was a a fitting choice of partner for the bizarre project: a self-described “anti-architect,” he designed, among other things, a suite of air-cushioned pneumatic furniture, and his finest architectural ideas (such as the Fun Palace and the Potteries Thinkbelt) went unrealized. He was a famously idiosyncratic dandy who started each day with a cigar and glass of brandy, and a lifelong Labour Party adherent. Price eschewed affiliation with any architectural movement, yet remained an active member of intersecting architectural circles in the UK and maintained friendships across party lines and social classes. He was a fixture at London’s Architectural Association, and it was there that he met structural engineer Frank Newby. Having been asked by the ZLS to join Snowdon as the Aviary’s primary architect and given a significant budget to do so, Price was able to enlist Newby’s formidable skills to producing the complex and ambitious structure.

Lord Snowdon at the Aviary. Photo by Harry Thompson/Evening Standard/Getty Images

The Aviary, when first presented to the ZSL in model form, seemed utterly at odds with gravity, but Price, Newby, and Snowdon were convinced that the underlying logic was solid, and set about to invent the mechanics necessary to complete it. According to Stanley Mathews, author of the 2007 monograph From Agit-Prop to Free Space: The Architecture of Cedric Price, the structure was inspired by the migratory flight patterns of birds; high at its ends and lower in the middle, it mimics the birds’ takeoffs and landings between perches. Both Price and Newby had been influenced by American engineer Buckminster Fuller, who often looked to the natural world for structural solutions to functional problems. Yet for all their biophilia, Price and Newby were very much attuned to newly available materials and technologies. Their use of an early computer modeling program to calculate the compression that the framework would withstand was an early example of digital technology allowing for the engineering of biomimetic form, now commonplace in architecture.

When it opened to the public, skeptical zoo officials were quickly won over by the aviary’s expansiveness and the freedom with which the birds flew throughout the enclosure. According to a BBC obituary, the structure was one of Snowdon's proudest accomplishments.

Over time, the Aviary fell into disrepair, but recently, the London Zoo announced plans for Foster + Partners to undertake a £7.1 million restoration and, in doing so, convert it to an enclosure for the Zoo’s population of colobus monkeys. It’s hard to imagine what Snowdon, Price, and Newby would have thought of the trans-species exchange, but the most famous feature of their design will, somewhat improbably, remain: the walk-through attraction will be preserved. One can only hope the monkeys will be as well-behaved.

This is the second installment in Garden Varieties, a series examining how plants, animals, and the natural world have crept and crawled into the history of design. Read the first, on plants, penguins, and the Bauhaus.