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Hunting for the Urban Elephant

[THIS WEEK] James Pallister welcomes a Hugh Casson retrospective at the Royal Academy

Ruskin famously found solace from a brutal world in the humble penguin. He wrote in a letter to Charles Eliot Norton: ‘I find penguins at present the only comfort in life. One feels everything in the world so sympathetically ridiculous; one can’t be angry when one looks at a penguin.’ The sketches of Hugh Casson have a similar effect, particularly the thoughtful-looking elephants in his watercolours of his Elephant and Rhinoceros House at London Zoo. Modern concerns about safety, welfare and pachyderm podiatry mean that, like the penguins and their Berthold Lubetkin-designed pool, the elephants are no longer resident in their striking concrete silos, having moved out in 1991. Completed in 1965, Casson’s design used a vertical striation to help ‘roughen’ up its exterior, helping to dissuade animals from rubbing up against it and damaging the walls, as well as providing a visual nod to the large animals’ rough skin.

A display of this sketch and more is currently on show at the Royal Academy. The building can be admired at London Zoo, where, with a bit of luck, you will find some pygmy marmosets snuffling around.

Elephant house

You may also enjoy reading Mark Haywood’s essay A Brief History of European Elephant Houses: From London’s Imperial Stables to Copenhagen’s Postmodern Glasshouse. Adding to his thorough genealogy of the type, Haywood speculates that the long-term breeding of the beasts in captivity, ‘together with a lengthening absence of genetic input from wild stock’, may mean that their ‘social behaviour may become increasingly divergent from their wild ancestors’. Haywood goes on: ‘It is even possible over time that zoo elephants may evolve into a domestic sub-species which is not simply unsuitable for reintroduction into the wild, but is better equipped for life in a socially and spatially restricted urban setting.’ The Urban Elephant. Who knew?

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