The elliptical Penguin Pool and ramp, London Zoo; copyright RIBA Library Photographs Collection.
London Zoo: the Tecton Group
Russian émigré architect Berthold Lubetkin arrived in London in 1931 to find the architectural scene poised to receive the continental modern movement. Joining forces with four like-minded young architects, he founded the radical Tecton group and within a year they had formed a fruitful connection with the Zoological Society of London that would provide them with their first commissions. Tecton would become the most innovative practice in pre-war Britain and these small early projects were a chance to experiment with ideas that would inform their later work.
The thinking of Carl Hagenbeck, a German wild animal merchant who pioneered the idea that animals should be housed in naturalistic environments, heavily influenced zoo architecture at that time. Lubetkin believed this method allowed shy animals to hide almost permanently from sight, at the expense of dramatic entertainment. Rather he saw the zoo as a theatre, believing it the architect’s task to provide a humane setting for the animal while still enabling ample viewing opportunities.
Gorilla House, London Zoo; copyright Dell & Wainwright / RIBA Library Photographs Collection.
London Zoo: the Gorilla House
Tecton’s architectural debut was the Gorilla House of 1932-3. Lunching with Solly Zuckerman, a Research Anatomist at London Zoo, Lubetkin learned of the recent acquisition of two gorillas, Mok and Moina, who were currently unsatisfactorily housed in a former lemur enclosure. He instantly proposed a purpose-built home for the valuable pair and the scheme was quickly approved. The first new building at the zoo for 21 years, the Gorilla House uncompromisingly demonstrated Lubetkin’s philosophy. The complex brief specified a need for highly controlled climatic conditions, good viewing opportunities for the public and protection against human infection for the gorillas. No attempt was made to create a naturalistic Congolese habitat but instead the gorillas were provided with their very own Corbusian ‘machine for living’, inspired by Le Corbusier’s use of a hollow concrete cylinder in the Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau at the International Exhibition of Decorative Arts in Paris of 1925. Lubetkin created a circular drum that offered flexible winter and summer environments with the ingenious employment of sliding screens. It was this innovative use of concrete that led Lubetkin to seek advice from Danish engineer Ove Arup, after which the pair’s long-term creative collaboration began.
Model of the Penguin Pool with penguins, London Zoo; copyright RIBA Library Photographs Collection.
London Zoo: the Penguin Pool
Following the success of the Gorilla House, Tecton was engaged to design the Penguin Pool in 1934. Conceived as a stage set to flaunt the penguins’ antics, the pool, with its gravity-defying ramps rising from the water like icy slopes, captivated the viewing public. Tecton and Arup would go on to design a refreshment bar (1936-7) and a Studio of Animal Art (1937) for the Zoo but construction of a proposed elephant house was halted by the war and abandoned completely in 1948, marking the end of their relationship with the zoo.
At a time when Modernism was receiving a doubtful reception from the average Briton, Tecton’s buildings at London Zoo gave the British public its first taste of the style in a context that they could relate to – and it was met with unfettered enthusiasm. Sadly, although the listed Penguin Pool was restored in the 1980s, it was deemed an unsuitable environment for penguins and they were removed in 2004.
Penguin Pool under construction, London Zoo, Ove Arup standing on the ramp; copyright RIBA Library Photographs Collection.
This article, with additional images, was published in MidCentury issue 05
For more images of London Zoo architecture, visit ribapix.com
Find out more about Berthold Lubetkin here