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The Design of the Snowdon Aviary and the Nature of Collaboration

  • David Yeomans


Although architects collaborate with engineers in the design of buildings, the contribution of the latter is seldom known to historians. This paper examines the design of the Snowdon Aviary at London Zoo, which is typically attributed to Lord Snowdon and Cedric Price. However, the vast majority of surviving design sketches are in the hand of Frank Newby, the structural engineer. Apart from giving clues about the way in which the design developed, these sketches leave the strong impression that Newby was taking the lead in proposing specific forms that the structure might take, because he alone was aware of the structural possibilities. The sketches raise the question: how common was this dynamic? Examples of Newby's contribution to other projects are suggested.



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1 Hughes, Everett C., Men and Their Work (Glencoe, 1958). His example was the relationship between hospital doctors and nurses.

2 Jordan, Robert Furneaux, ‘Brynmawr’, Architectural Review, 111 (February 1952), p. 148. The factory was based on a series of shells, novel in Britain at the time.

3 Samuely, Felix and Ward, P.J.A., ‘The Skylon’, Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, 1 (July 1952), p. 448.

4 The RIBA and the Institution of Civil Engineers began a regrettably short-lived series, The Engineer's Contribution to Contemporary Architecture, which attempted to address this, but most of the engineers studied — Owen Williams, Heinz Isler and Eladio Dieste — did not work closely with architects.

5 David Cottam, ‘Architectural Principles in an Age of Structuralism’ (doctoral thesis, University of Liverpool, 1986), suggested that this was so in the collaboration between Arup and Lubetkin.

6 Landau, Roy, ‘Engineers and Architects: Newby + Price’, AA Files, 27 (Summer 1994), pp. 2532 (p. 28). The illustrations in this article include ‘First doodles by Cedric Price’, but these show tubular structures rather than anything like the final form. Indeed, one of the ‘doodles’ rather closely resembles a structure proposed for Southend in 1972. See Southend Roof: Covered Street Project; Architect Cedric Price’, Techniques et Architecture, 304 (May–June 1975), p. 51.

7 For background, see Northern Aviary, London Zoo; Designed by: Lord Snowdon, C. Price & F. Newby’, Architectural Design, September 1965, pp. 451–59; Guillery, Peter, The Buildings of London Zoo (London, 1993), pp. 7578; and Hardingham, Samantha, Cedric Price Works 1952–2013: A Forward-Minded Retrospective (London, 2017), pp. 87103.

8 Snowdon kept a model of this structure on a shelf in his kitchen (personal communication).

9 Reported in the Sunday Times, 30 May 1965.

10 Snowdon noted that the popular press did not take the project seriously until it was covered favourably in the Architectural Review (‘Aviary at the London Zoo; Designed by the Earl of Snowdon and Cedric Price’, Architectural Review, 127 (1961), pp. 417–18) (personal communication).

11 Personal communication.

12 Felix Samuely had died of a heart attack in 1959. Frank Newby, who then became the firm's senior partner, chose to retain its original name.

13 London, Institution of Civil Engineers [hereafter ICE], Frank Newby papers (at the time of writing these had not been catalogued). In her discussion of the aviary, Samantha Hardingham reproduces two sketches of a structure formed of a cluster of four boxes with pyramid-shaped tops and bases, each suspended from a central, octagonal post. One drawing is attributed to Price and the other to Newby. However, the drawings are similar in graphic style and not like Newby's hand. Moreover, they are drawn with a hard pencil, which Newby never used. Both appear to be by Price, but it is also difficult to see them as initial ideas for the aviary, because they do not have the end pavilions referred to in Price's initial design notes. See Hardingham, Cedric Price Works, p. 89.

14 Additional sketches by Price survive on a small number of sheets now among Newby's personal papers, but they appear to be no more than vaguely suggested forms, and none of them was developed further.

15 Discussed in Espion, Bernard, Devos, Rika and Provost, Michel, ‘Entre Ingénierie et Architecture, Innovations Structurales’, in L'Architecture Moderne à l'Expo 58 (Brussels, 2006), ed. Devos, Rika and De Kooning, Mil, pp. 100–27. The structure also appeared on the cover of L'Architecture d'Aujourd'hui, June 1958.

16 Newby referred to Dorton Arena in his talk at the Architectural Association. See Landau, ‘Engineers and Architects’. Also see Newby, Frank, ‘Brussels, the Development of Structural Technique’, Architecture and Building (June 1958), pp. 204–14. For a review of all the structures, see Devos and De Kooning, L'Architecture Moderne à l'Expo 58.

17 Landau, ‘Engineers and Architects’, p. 29.

18 Snowdon claimed authorship of the model explicitly (personal communication).

19 Montreal, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Cedric Price fonds.

20 Landau, ‘Engineers and Architects’, p. 30.

21 ICE, Frank Newby papers, photographs of the wind-tunnel test report.

22 This principle can be illustrated with a simple model in which a pencil is balanced on its point with the aid of an elastic band. See Samuely and Ward, ‘The Skylon’.

23 ICE, Frank Newby papers, letter dated 5 January 1964.

24 ICE, Frank Newby papers, letter dated 17 November 1961.

25 ICE, Frank Newby papers. A further letter following the failure of a socket joint is dated 18 October 1963, giving some indication of the time needed for detailed design.

26 Newby, Frank, ‘Hi Tec or Mystec’, RIBA Transactions, 3 (1984), pp. 1827.

27 Samuely, Felix, ‘Skin structures and shell roofs, with particular reference to industrial buildings’, Architectural Design, 22 (September 1952), pp. 242–56.

28 Howell, William, ‘Vertebrate Buildings, the Architecture of Structural Space’, Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects, 77 (1970), pp. 100–08.

29 London, Institution of Civil Engineers, Newby Archive, Folder 1124.

30 Ronald Weeks, personal communication.

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Architectural History
  • ISSN: 0066-622X
  • EISSN: 2059-5670
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