If you exclude actual buildings, I’d wager that there are few 1930’s structures in England more famous than the Penguin Pool at London Zoo. Even those with a mere cursory knowledge of the UK’s key tourist attractions will be familiar with it. Famous in period, thanks to its innovative construction and wondrous sweeping lines, it has been celebrated as an ‘art deco’ masterpiece ever since. Poirot has been there, Bekonscot model village has a miniature recreation of it, and now, at long last, amorous starry-eyed couples can get married there; it’s nothing short of iconic.
This pioneering slice of inter-war design, featuring two unsupported intersecting spiral-ramps, descending into an azure pool, was designed by Tecton, an influential architectural firm headed up by Russian émigré Berthold Lubetkin. Unveiled in 1934, it was Tecton’s second structure in the Zoo, following the previous year’s Gorilla House. Their pioneering early use of reinforced concrete (concrete set over a metal framework) allowed the construction of curvaceous adventurous designs not previously achievable through traditional methods.
Both structures are now justifiably Grade I listed and admired globally, but what of the firms follow up projects? If the Penguin Pool represented Tecton’s “Strawberry Fields Forever”, are you familiar with their “Sgt. Pepper”?
The success at London Zoo led to commissions for various projects, including, most notably, one from The Earl of Dudley, wishing to realise his dream of creating ‘The Most Up to Date Zoo in the World’. Built on a 40 acre site between ‘35 and ’37, and centred on the remains of Dudley’s C11th Castle, Tecton created thirteen innovative structures in a similar vein to those at London. This winning combination of exotic concrete experiments paired with exotic live animals proved a roaring success, with over 1 million visitors attending within the first 18 months. It is worth noting that in addition to the five key members of the Tecton Group, the celebrated structural engineer Ove Arup was also involved in the project (later famous for his work on Sydney Opera House).
Twelve of the original thirteen structures (now referred to simply as Tectons) survive, and somewhat ironically, it’s the penguin pool that is no more. Following the onslaught of forty years worth of corrosive salt water containment, it was condemned and demolished in 1979. The others all remain, seven with grade II listed status, and five granted the coveted grade II*. The site was collectively given World Monument Status in 2009, and a £1.15 million heritage lottery fund grant followed in 2011, allowing the zoo to begin restoration of the Tectons one-by-one, a process that continues presently.
My eldest daughter had been petitioning for a trip to a zoo for quite some time, so in January, on a bleak and near freezing morning, I obliged by treating the family to a maiden visit to DZG: Animals for the kids, Tectons for dad!
Most of the structures original purposes have changed over the years, and many of the walkways and steps have been cordoned off in the interest health & safety. Kiosks once used to serve refreshments, now act as unusual huts for informative displays, and generally, the Tectons remain more as monuments than functional buildings. Never the less, it is fascinating to get up close and personal with these impressive chunks of concrete. One has to keep reminding oneself that they are from the ‘30s, when this type of Brutalist construction is more typically associated with the flyovers and multi-story car parks of post-war redevelopments, some twenty to thirty years later.
In the winter, the place is virtually empty with most attractions closed for the down season. Great for unobstructed photos, less so for family enjoyment! Here follows a series of photographs from our adventure.
Spoiler alert, if you’re hoping to see exciting shots of the residents, please click away, as they were all sensibly hiding inside. This is purely about the architecture.
Find out more: www.dudleyzoo.org.uk