Why go to London Zoo?
Is it for animals or architecture? That might not be such a daft question.
The Zoological Society of London site in Regents Park, London Zoo, is probably where you would go and see exotic animals rather than interesting buildings. Actually, the Zoo has a history of commissioning leading architects and has a dozen or so listed buildings. Along with a couple of others, the Penguin Pool has a grade 1 listing. It was built in 1934 to a design by Berthold Lubetkin. It is noteworthy because of the early sculptural use of concrete. Lubetkin’s aim was to provide a dramatic showcase for the natural characteristics of the penguins. That does not mean it was designed using natural shapes. “Rather than literally simulating a natural habitat, Lubetkin’s objective was to suggest a metaphor for Antarctica in a miniature cameo that displayed the animals’ natural characteristics in a dramatic manner that would engage and inform the observer.” (English-Heritage.org.uk)
It is formed as an elongated ellipse over which are suspended interlocking ramps which turn back on each other. This was to allow the penguins to “promenade” in their quirky and characteristic way compared with how elegantly they move in the water. This required considerable ingenuity. The ramps needed massive abutments to counterbalance the weight of the concrete. The cross section of each ramp tapers from 15cm to 8cm. The thinner side is on show to present an impression of delicacy not possible without the taper. It must have been cutting edge because the London County Council had to give a special exemption to the planning regulations for it to be built. There are many other architectural touches that make this building worthy of its grade 1 listing but I’m already starting to sound a bit anoraky.
Lubetkin apparently insisted that a nearby Tree of Heaven (ailanthus altissima) remained as a natural foil to the abstract geometrical shape. It is not a native British tree. It is often considered a pest in London because it grows quickly and can cope with pollution better than many trees. It smells bad (although I’ve not noticed this personally), causes considerable damage is very difficult to remove. It is considered an Invasive Non-Native Species (INNS) along with Canada Geese and Grey Squirrels amongst others. 80 years later, there is still an example of Tree of Heaven shading the Penguin Pool although I’m not sure if it is the original tree. That must have been mature in the 1930s.
Problems with the Lubetkin Penguin Pool
Unfortunately, despite the diving pool, the revolving fountain that was designed to keep the ramps wetted and the cork and rubber faced pool surrounds, it was decided in 2004 that the Penguin Pool was no longer a fit home for its inhabitants. The pool was too shallow for diving and the concrete was too hard on their feet. The black-footed penguins which were housed there could not make burrows to complete their mating rituals.
Actually, the Lubetkin Pool fulfilled its role for much longer than the average zoo enclosure. The only original building in use for its original purpose is the Giraffe House that was designed by Decimus Burton in 1836. It was damaged by bombing during the second world war but rebuilt to the original design in the 1960s with the south wall intact from the original building. This is unusual because developments in thinking about animal husbandry tend to occur every 10 years on average whereas the average enclosure is supposed to last for 30 to 40 years. Even the Giraffe house has had the surrounding land change from hard standing to some turf for the sake of the animals’ feet.
Buildings quickly become obsolete and, over time, this has become an increasing problem. On its own, the cost of replacement is prohibitive but when the buildings have to be maintained to listed standard it leaves the Zoo with property that it can no longer use and it is not allowed to replace.
The zoo now seems to have a regime of not actually building permanent structures. This will being having to maintain more unusable buildings in future. For example, the current Tiger Territory seems to have been constructed from posts and chain fencing up against the walls of existing buildings. The number of species housed in the Zoo has decreased over time but the environment for those that remain has improved immeasurably.
Penguin Beach was opened at the Zoo in 2011. It is much larger, allowing considerable room for diving and high speed swimming (showing off!) but also privacy. The success seems to be proven by the 10 penguin chicks that were reared there in 2014. I’m sure this doesn’t mean that the solution will last forever but it must be difficult to list a hole in the ground and a wooden shack as being of particular architectural interest.
And the Lubetkin Pool is protected which makes me happy. Although it can’t be used for its original purpose I still think it is a piece of beautiful architecture and every time I see it I’m transported to Zoo visits of my childhood. It may only be able to move me 50 years in time but it is still my personal Tardis. Despite the disappointment you see on people’s faces when they peer over the wall of the Penguin Pool and find it empty, there is still some humour. The Sunday before last I heard a young man showing off his knowledge to his girlfriend that the penguins had probably been taken in doors because of the cold weather.
If you go to the Zoo, don’t forget to got take a look. You might even mention to it that Phil says hello.