The original walk-through aviary

Britain’s first walk-through aviary was a bold and innovative piece of London architectural design – which has been lovingly revitalised as Monkey Valley.

Designed in 1960-61, developed between 1962 and 1964, and officially opened to the public in 1965, the Snowdon Aviary was a pioneering project that made London architectural history and would inspire future generations of architects. The idea of building an aviary on the banks of the Regent’s Canal originated in the ambitious plans for a “New Zoo” drawn up by consultant architect Sir Hugh Casson at the end of the 1950s. 

Adventurousness and future adaptability were central to the plans, which aimed to “transform the Zoological Gardens so as to make them an outstanding feature of London’s architecture and landscape, and at the same time provide our collection of wild animals, the most varied and one of the largest in the world, with housing best suited to its diverse physical and psychological needs.”

Designing Snowdon Aviary 

To design the new London Zoo aviary, ZSL enlisted the help of former architecture student turned society photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones (the late 1st Earl of Snowdon), who was the talk of the town on his marriage to Princess Margaret in 1960. The new Earl may have been recommended for the project by his then brother-in-law and ZSL president at the time, The Duke of Edinburgh, after Snowdon designed an aviary for Mereworth Castle. 

Snowdon worked with architect Cedric Price and structural engineer Frank Newby to develop the soaring steel and aluminium design, said to be inspired by the flight patterns of birds. Although the project was originally dubbed the Northern Aviary, the Snowdon name stuck.

Ahead of its time in a number of ways, the aviary drew on Frank Newby’s experience of working on another apparently gravity-defying landmark: the Skylon structure at the Festival of Britain in 1951. Like Skylon, the aviary harnesses tension to support its structure, with a web of steel cables held in constant tension over an aluminium framework, all covered with lightweight aluminium mesh. 

Rising to 24m high in places, the roof framework is shaped around four triangle-sided pyramids (tetrahedrons); two at each end of the building. The aviary was the first tension building in the UK that was designed to be permanent, and one of the earliest to use aluminium (then a relatively new-fangled material) so extensively. Equally innovative at the time was the use of computer modelling to handle some of the engineering calculations involved. 

Birds at Snowdon aviary 

Designed to enclose as much open space as possible for birds and people to share, the Snowdon Aviary also needed to make the most of its tricky location on the steep slope between Regent’s Canal and Prince Albert Road. It included an artificial cliff intended to provide roosting and nesting places for birds and plenty of viewing opportunities for visitors, along with trees, pools and waterfalls and a zigzagging walkway. 

Initially home to around 150 birds, the aviary has provided a home to a wide variety of species over the years. These ranged from laughing thrushes and glossy starlings to water birds such as spoonbills and ducks, ground-dwelling cranes and plovers, and cliff specialists such as kittiwakes and alpine choughs. 

The Snowdon Aviary today

The Grade II* listed former aviary is enjoying a fresh lease of life from summer 2022 as Monkey Valley, a new home for ZSL’s eastern black-and-white colobus monkeys. The redevelopment was made possible by a £4 million grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and a £1 million donation from The Ambika Paul Foundation. 

The reimagined Monkey Valley continues the original designers’ dream of providing a stimulating, naturalistic habitat for its resident animals. Visitors will be able to take a tree-top walk while monkeys leap from branch to branch of their landscaped home. But if you’re missing bird life, head over to our modern walk-through aviary at the Blackburn Pavilion to discover some of our current bird collections.

Journey through our history

  • Penguins at Lubetkin penguin pool at London Zoo designed by Berthold Lubetkin
    Pioneering Berthold Lubetkin design

    Lubetkin penguin pool

    Our Lubetkin Penguin pool at London Zoo is iconic. The sweeping spiral ramps kick-started a new era for British architecture, and inspired an enduring love of penguins in the British public.

  • A portrait of the gorilla 'Meng'. London Zoo, June 1939.
    One of Britain’s first modernist buildings

    Round house

    Designed for gorillas by Berthold Lubetkin, the building was home to our first gorillas Mok and Moina.

  • Zookeeper with a toucan bird
    Home to more than 50 different birds

    Blackburn Pavilion

    Blackburn Pavilion originally housed crocodiles, and is one of the only Victorian animal houses at the Zoo to remain in use today.

  • The London Zoo aquarium photographed in July 1981
    World's first public aquarium

    The Aquarium

    We were home to the world’s first public aquarium. We popularised the name “Aquarium” and pioneered the first environments to provide the correct living conditions for salt-water animals.

  • Historic photo of flamingos at Mappin Terraces at London Zoo
    Built over 100 years ago

    Mappin Terraces and Pavilion

    At the time of their creation in 1913, they represented an innovative step to provide more naturalistic settings for animals at the Zoo. Over the years, the terraces have been home to goats, bears, penguins, ibex and snow leopards

  • Black and white photo of giraffes at Decimus Burton's Giraffe House
    England's first giraffes

    Giraffe house history

    When giraffes arrived at London Zoo in 1836, they caused a public sensation. Our giraffes were the first to be seen by the public in England, and made Londoners instantly form a connection with the natural world.

  • Designed by Decimus Burton in 1828 for llamas, in 1831 a clock was added to the top of the building, and the llamas were replaced with camels.
    Decimus Burton design

    Clock Tower

    The oldest original building at the Zoo, and it still has closing-time bell on the outside of the building.

  • Winnie the bear at London Zoo which inspired Winnie the Pooh
    The real story behind Winnie the Pooh

    Winnie the Pooh origins

    Winnie was one of our most famous residents, a black bear taken in when her mother was killed by a hunter and she has an enduring influence on pop culture today.

  • Our history