A new tiger enclosure at the London Zoo perfectly mates architecture with animal welfare, finds OLIVER WAINWRIGHT

“We have tried our best to fade into the background,” says Michael Kozdon, architect of the new Tiger Territory at London Zoo, on the northern edge of Regent’s Park in central London. It’s not often you hear an architect say that, but then it’s not often you have a pair of endangered Sumatran tigers as clients, either.Jae Jae, for example, likes to have generous amounts of Old Spice perfume sprayed around his enclosure (that’s males for you). “In the past,” continues Kozdon, “animal enclosures were all about creating an iconic architectural statement. Now the emphasis is on animal welfare, on bringing visitors as close to the creatures as possible. Our aim is to disappear.”

This explains why, rather than being held in by a roof, Jae Jae and his partner Melati have a fine net canopy stretching above their heads — even though its silken threads are made of 3mm steel cable (tigers are capable of jumping 5m from a standing start). Stretched into tensile peaks and troughs by four black metal poles (the tallest of which rises to 20m), the canopy soars above the treetops of Regent’s Park like a giant spider’s web. The enclosure’s sinuous silhouette echoes the pinkish peaks of its neighbour, the Mappin Terraces, a manmade range of rocky mountains that have long poked their summits above the trees, bringing a surreal air to this strange corner of the park. Sadly, this sheer geological formation has been barren since 1985, when Pipaluk, the last of the polar bears, was finally moved out after 18 years. Now, thanks to Tiger Territory, the skyline is populated once again — and it’s not just the rest of the park that gets the good views.

Covering 2,500 sq. m, the new enclosure boasts several mature plane trees as well as tall wooden feeding poles fitted with pulleys that hoist big chunks of meat aloft. So, before they can sink their three-inch teeth into lunch, Jae Jae and Melati will first have to climb, which suits their predatory nature. “Tigers are avid climbers,” explains Robin Fitzgerald, the zoo’s projects manager. “They like to observe their terrain from a towering vantage point, so we’ve given them exactly that — with a view out over Regent’s Park.” Describing how the poles and canopy support each other, he adds: “It’s basically circus tent technology.”

The Tiger Territory incorporates extant buildings into the redevelopment. An ostrich house now provides a cosy tiger den, complete with heated rocks to soothe their weary muscles, while the sea lion stand has become an elevated viewing platform for visitors. The new enclosure is five times larger than the previous one and its design demonstrates a new emphasis on animal husbandry. For instance, the tiger pair can be separated, along with any future cubs, into two different parts of the enclosure, connected by a glass door.

London Zoo is an inevitably dated institution, laden with rigid monuments from another era. A walk through the zoo is as much an architectural safari as a wildlife one. Victorian kiosks jostle with mock-Tudor clocktowers; steel spaceframes cantilever out over brutalist concrete terraces. This all comes to a strange climax in the stripped classical facade of the 1920s aquarium, with its arched entranceway and symmetrical windows now squeezed beneath the colossal mock-rocks of what was once Bear Mountain.

The zoo is a fascinating piece of living heritage. But for those brought up on seeing animals in the wild, the image of an urban zoo, in which animals tramp forlorn circles in tatty enclosures, is increasingly hard to stomach. With its vastly increased area, near-invisible structure, and strategic reuse of what is already there, the Tiger Territory at least points a promising way forward.

- GUARDIAN