Set within a historic royal park, adjacent to the Frederiksberg Palace, Copenhagen Zoo is among the oldest zoos in Europe and one of Denmark's most popular cultural institutions, with 1.2 million visitors a year. Among the Zoo's most visited inhabitants are the Indian elephants. The starting point for the design of this new Elephant House was to provide these magnificent animals with a healthy, stimulating environment and in the process to create easily accessible spaces from which visitors can see and enjoy them.

Extensive research into elephants' social patterns provided design cues. The tendency for bull elephants in the wild to roam away from the herd suggested a plan organised around two separate enclosures. These enclosures are dug into the sloping site, both to minimise the building's physical impact in the landscape and to optimise its passive thermal performance. Covered with glazed domes, the spaces maintain a strong visual connection with the sky and changing patterns of daylight. From the entrance square visitors enter the foyer and are lead by ramps down into an educational space, with views into the enclosures along the way. 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.

Significantly, the building sets new zoological standards in terms of the elephants' physical well-being. 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. Other aspects of the design resulted from research into the elephants' natural habitat. The paddocks recreate a section of dry riverbed as found at the edge of the rainforest - a favourite haunt of Asian elephants. With its mud holes, pools and shading objects, it is a place where the animals are able to play and interact freely.

Sketches + Drawings



Facts + Figures

  • Appointment: 2002
  • Completion: 2008
  • Area: 3,500m²
  • Height: 13m
  • Capacity: 200
  • Client: Foundation Realdania for Copenhagen Zoo
  • Structural Engineer: Rambøll with Buro Happold
  • Quantity Surveyor: Davis Langdon LLP and Seah
  • M+E Engineer: Rambøll with Buro Happold
  • Landscape Architect: Stig L Andersson Architects


  • Honorary Mention, Fédération Internationale du Béton Awards for Outstanding Concrete Structures
  • Danish Concrete Association, Insitu Concrete Award
  • Danish Concrete Association, Concrete Award
  • World Architecture Festival, High Commendation (Pleasure category)
  • Frederiksberg Award for Good and Beautiful Buildings


An adult male elephant weighs 5.5T and can exert a 15T horizontal load on a wall. All the walls which can be reached by an elephant are made of reinforced concrete 300mm thick. The precast wall panels in the stables have a textured surface (exposed aggregate) so that the elephants can rub/exfoliate their skin. The 'fritting' pattern on the glazed roof canopies was created by sampling four species of tree. A computer script was written to rotate, scale and randomly populate the roof, so that no two 'leaves' are the same. The overlapping pattern provides naturalistic dappled light.

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