Designed as a part of Copenhagen’s oldest zoo, Foster + Partners completed The Elephant House project in 2008 for Foundation Realdania for Copenhagen Zoo, covering an area of 3500 SQM. With over 1.2 million visits a year, the most visited animal in this historic royal park is the Indian elephant.
This project is a complete contrast to Foster’s usual style of high-tech design. Very earthy and natural, it houses Asian elephants which enabled the designers to venture into the world of zoology to better understand the needs of the elephant world.
This project was awarded for—World Architecture Festival, High Commendation (Pleasure category); Frederiksberg Award for Good and Beautiful Buildings; Honorary Mention, Fédération Internationale du Béton Awards for Outstanding Concrete Structures; Danish Concrete Association, In-Situ Concrete Award; Danish Concrete Association, Concrete Award.
Design Philosophy and Concept
An in-depth and focused effort was put into studying the social patterns of elephants that provided distinct design cues. Research showed that bull elephants tend to roam away from the herd. This was reflected in the design by the organization of two separate enclosures.
The enclosures are designed to minimize the structure’s impact on the context and site and maximize its passive thermal performance. Some of these cues were the requirement to maintain a strong visual connection with the sky and daylight patterns—these were addressed by providing the entire facility with glazed domes. Visitors are led down via a ramp to an educational space that provides views of the enclosed house along the way.
As seen by Norman Foster,” At the end of this route, broad public terraces offer splendid views across the herd paddock. Barriers between the animals and visitors are discreet, and the paddock walls are concealed in a linear pool so that the visitor encounters the elephants as another ‘surprise’ in the landscape of the park.” (Foster+Partners, 2008)
María Francisca González, a curator at archdaily mentions while talking about the project, “The main enclosure enables the six cows and calves to congregate and sleep together, as they would in the wild, while the floors are heated to keep them dry and thus maintain the health of the animals’ feet.” (María Francisca González, 2018).
Other planning features take cues from the natural habitats of these elephants. The paddocks bring in the spatial essence of a favorite spot of Asian elephants—dry riverbeds found at the edges of the rainforest. The animals can interact freely because of these resemblances found in the planning. Space further adds to a sense of belonging in the animals because of the mud holes, pools, and landscape included in planning.
The original temple-fronted elephant house, built in 1914 was deemed unfit for the needs of these elephants. This led to Norman Foster’s design studio- Foster + Partners acquiring the project.
An online review states, “Twin domed structures were sunk into the ground, with misters to keep the residents’ hides moist and underfloor heating to prevent trench foot. Outside, a large enclosure with a pool gives them somewhere to stretch their legs. This potted history of the elephant house traces a miniature narrative of architecture, from historicist temples, both of which have been rejected as unsuitable, via Casson’s monumental Modernism, also vacated for safety reasons after one of the elephants trampled a keeper to death, to a less monumental, more animal-centered design. The next step is the elimination of architecture, as zoos are shut down for good.” (AR Editors, 2018)
Materials and Construction
Isabelle Lomholt of e-architect says, “Inserted into the natural contours of the site, it replaces a structure dating from 1914 and sets new standards in zoological design, providing the animals with a stimulating environment that recreates aspects of their former Asian habitat.” (Lomholt, 2020).
The structure is built using terracotta-colored concrete and the natural yellow sand available on site was reused in the making of the paddocks. The colors and textures used were selected to recreate a scene from their natural habitats to allow the animals to better adjust to these paddocks. The spaces along these paddocks are also designed with similar materials and that ties the entire space together. The huge public viewing terraces are designed for maximizing the views without disrupting the serenity of the space for the animals.
As Armstrong Yakubu, Norman Foster’s design group leader puts it, “It’s about light, sand, and air for the elephants; and we had to find a way for humans to slip through their spaces.”
- AR Editors. (2018, APRIL 16). Elephant House at Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark by Foster + Partners. Retrieved from Architectural Review: https://www.architectural-review.com/buildings/elephant-house-at-copenhagen-zoo-in-denmark-by-foster-partners
- Foster+Partners. (2008). Foster and Partners. Retrieved from Foster and Partners: https://www.fosterandpartners.com/projects/elephant-house-copenhagen-zoo/
- Lomholt, I. (2020, October 10). Elephant House Copenhagen Zoo. Retrieved from e-architect: https://www.e-architect.com/copenhagen/copenhagen-zoo
- María Francisca González. (2018, April 04). Elephant House / Foster + Partners. Retrieved from Archdaily: https://www.archdaily.com/891843/elephant-house-foster-plus-partners