Room to Fly: An Architectural History of the Aviary

In today’s vernacular, an ‘aviary’ suggests a cavernous, enclosed space where birds and humans intermingle. The birds have room to comfortably fly around, and the aviary’s owner can keep track of how many birds live inside. Early iterations of the aviary in the 19th century tend to look like enlarged bird cages. Over the course of 150 years, architects disintegrated this boundary between the pedestrian and the animal on display.


French bird trainer Jean Desbouvrie designed an early model of the aviary to keep swallows for military use. He trained a dozen birds to follow him around wherever he walked, tagging them with colored silk on their feet to indicate their age and aptitude. Soldiers already used carrier pigeons in battle to relay commands across enemy lines. The trained swallows were a faster alternative — in one experiment a bird flew from Paris to Roubaix at 120 miles per hour. He proposed that a ‘swallow-house’ be constructed on Montmartre as a hub for these specialized birds.

The London Zoo was another European site where architects tested out versions of the aviary before arriving at what we know today. One of the earliest aviaries at the London Zoo was a wrought-iron cage for ravens designed by Decimus Burton in 1829. This enlarged bird cage was only about ten feet tall and let viewers walk around the structure.

Later iterations of the aviary at the London Zoo abstracted the barrier between birds and their viewers. Berthold Lubetkin’s Penguin Pool used cantilevered, interlocking ramps to mimic a visitors walk through a picturesque landscape. The design’s whitewashed concrete and slate-colored bath resemble the icy form of Antarctica. The architectural plan takes advantage of the flightless species by crafting a short wall and eliminating a caged boundary altogether.

Penguin Pool 1934

In 1961, Cedric Price, Frank Newby and Antony Armstrong-Jones designed the Snowdon Aviary using plastic-coated steel cables and aluminum netting. The pedestrian ramp is separated from the skin structure, allowing the visitors to walk amongst the birds.

Snowdon Aviary Brochure

Aviaries in zoos are a convenient site for bird research because of consistent access to the animals. Researchers have shown that the physical construction of the aviary itself affects a bird’s ability to navigate.

Homing Pigeon Aviary Diagrama

A German research team in the 1970s reared different pigeon cohorts in aviaries with different wall materials. They showed that if pigeons were raised in a glass aviary that restricted airflow, they had trouble returning to their home base when displaced a few kilometers away. Aviaries constructed with opaque walls that permitted airflow but blocked vision, did not interfere with the pigeon’s homeward orientation. Do aviaries without rigid walls, like those in the London Zoo, alter the bird’s natural behavior and notion of home?

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