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Which Building Feels Like an Elephant?

Elephant and Rhinoceros Pavilion (Casson Pavilion)
Zoological Gardens, Regent's Park, London

Listed: 1998
Grade: II*
NHLE entry: Listing details for the Elephant and Rhinoceros Pavilion

View of the Elephant and Rhinoceros Pavilion at London Zoo.
Elephant and Rhinoceros Pavilio, London Zoo. © Historic England DP138751.

Records of buildings that resemble elephants are not as uncommon as you might think on the National Heritage List for England. Coventry has its landmark Elephant Building, which is attached to the listed swimming baths and is so called because its great grey bulk literally resembles an elephant. However, the appearance of the former Elephant and Rhinoceros Pavilion at London Zoo, constructed between 1962 and 1965, is a more subtle reference to the impressive animal.

Inspired by their movements

The pavilion concludes a sequence of mid-20th-century zoo buildings whose style reflects that of their occupants - from Lubetkin and Tecton's Penguin Pool to the delicate Snowdon Aviary, both also at London Zoo.

The architects Sir Hugh Casson and Neville Conder were indebted to Tecton's Elephant House at Whipsnade of 1935, where a line of circular pods was inspired by the way elephants turn round and round before settling down. Here, however, the pods are grouped, resembling animals huddling round a water hole. Inside, skylights within the pyramidal copper roofs provide natural but deliberately directed lighting that highlights the qualities of each animal, while chunky benches and brick walkways corral the inquisitive humans into the centre of the building.

A saucy thing?

Sir Hugh Casson produced the initial sketches, calling the building 'a saucy thing'. The principal design and details are by Neville Conder, and shortly before his death in 2003, he explained that the rough striated concrete was inspired by Twickenham Bridge (1928-33) near where he had once lived. Many historians have likened it to the work of his contemporary Paul Rudolph in the United States, but in reality Conder had tried, unsuccessfully, to use concrete in a similar way much earlier.

The pavilion at London Zoo perfectly describes the rough hide of an elephant's backside, and was actually tough enough to withstand the elephants rubbing against it. The building is Casson and Conder's finest work (they were in partnership together from 1949) and it is now known as the Casson Pavilion.

The pavilion today

All of London Zoo's elephants and rhinos now live in more spacious accommodation at Whipsnade Wild Animal Park, and the Casson Pavilion houses tapirs, bearded pigs and camels. It is still a marvellous structure to visit: go to London Zoo's website for more information.

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