Apes and Architecture: Europe’s most stunning zoos

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At the Elephant House in Copenhagen
Sir Norman Foster's Elephant House in Copenhagen. Photo by Kristian M.

Most folk have definite views about zoos, and any mention inevitably brings out a string of arguments for and against the incarceration of animals. But there are other reasons for going to zoos beyond watching wild cats, apes and okapi.

Zoos are great spots for people watching and, for anyone with even only a passing interest in architecture, zoos often boast some of the finest buildings in a city. Few of Europe’s leading architects have not at one time or another turned their hand to zoo buildings.

To the Alpenzoo in Innsbruck

On the top of our list of zoos for fans of great contemporary architecture is Innsbruck in the Austrian Tyrol, where even the ride from town up to the zoo is an architectural feast. The Hungerburgbahn is a funicular railway from the middle of Innsbruck to the Alpenzoo. This mountain railway was rebuilt in 2007, and Anglo-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid was commissioned to design the stations along the route. Her designs are breathtaking.

Unpack your trunk in Copenhagen

One of our favorite modern zoo buildings is the elephant house at Copenhagen Zoo, designed by Foster and Partners. Norman Foster is more associated with glitzy showpiece efforts, but the understated earthiness of the new structure at Copenhagen Zoo is evidently elephant bliss. One of Foster’s colleagues is reported as saying that going back to designing buildings for grumpy humans will be no fun after working on the Copenhagen elephant house.

Penguin bliss in London

The London Zoo has a galaxy of architectural gems, the the most striking of which is the seductive Penguin pool designed by the Georgian-born architect Berthold Lubetkin in 1934.

Lubetkin and his progressive architectural alliance (known as Tecton) secured many commissions for zoo buildings across Britain, of which the finest collection is at the Dudley Zoo in the English Midlands (midway between the cities of Birmingham and Wolverhampton).

Dudley: The Lubetkin legacy

A little improbably, Dudley thus hosts the best collection of Constructivist buildings anywhere outside the former Soviet Union. The uncompromising modernity of the Dudley Zoo took visitor’s breath away when the zoo opened in 1937.

More than 70 years later, the buildings are showing signs of age, but they alone still justify a visit to the town, though curiously the Dudley Zoo Web site makes no significant mention of what many might judge to be the zoo’s greatest asset.

Lubetkin was a star architect of the 20th century. But is it not ironic that the greatest beneficiaries of an architect so committed to a vision of a better society were not humans at all, but rather apes and penguins?

About the author


About the authors: Nicky and Susanne manage a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine.

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One thought on “Apes and Architecture: Europe’s most stunning zoos”

  1. Wow, that new elephant house at the Copenhagen Zoo looks amazing! It is perhaps the wave of the future for large animal houses.

    Allen Nyhuis, Coauthor: America’s Best Zoos


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