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London Zoo: The Bricks and Mortar

John Lenehan explores one of our city’s greatest architectural gems

Published on August 8th 2011.


London Zoo: The Bricks and Mortar

NESTLED in amongst Regents Park is the most unusual and eclectic collection of buildings – the complex’s architectural history spans nearly 130 years. From seminal works of modern architecture in Britain, such as Berthold Lubetkin’s iconic 1934 penguin pool, through to more experimental and divisive structures such as Hugh Casson’s 1965 elephant house, built in the controversial style of Brutalism, this small gem in north London encapsulates over a century of architectural highs and lows in a uniquely enthralling environment.

London Zoo, or the Royal Menagerie as it was formerly known, was originally located within the Tower of London, and was only relocated to the royal hunting grounds of Regents Park in 1828 after a lion from the collection of animals held within the Tower escaped and mauled a soldier.  

London Zoo, or the Royal Menagerie as it was formerly known, was originally located within the Tower of London, and was only relocated to the royal hunting grounds of Regents Park in 1828 after a lion from the collection of animals held within the Tower escaped and mauled a soldier. Conceived as a collection of follies and unashamedly barbaric amusements during the Victorian period, London Zoo has now evolved into a zoological society at the forefront of conservation. This evolution has left a profound and significant architectural legacy. The dramatic changes that have taken place over the 130 year history of the zoo are evident throughout, from the now defunct penguin pool, deemed too small and unnatural for use today, right through to new contemporary structures such as the imposing Snowdon aviary, which seems to be suspended in mid-air over the Regents canal.

The dramatic curves of the Penguin Pool make it a modernist architectural iconThe dramatic curves of the Penguin Pool make it a modernist architectural icon

Many of the structures within the zoo echo numerous, significant artistic movements occurring all over Europe at the time, such as the Tecton architectural group’s gorilla house of 1932, a structure which appears to be heavily influenced by the work of Le Corbusier, the Bauhaus and the wave of Modernist architecture sweeping the continent during the ’30s, with a design which utilises clean lines, a simple geometric form and lack of ornamentation. Surprisingly, this structure designed for animals rather than man is actually one of the earliest examples of a very pure form of Modernism in Britain, which during this period still looked to the past for inspiration, embracing neo–Gothic and arts and crafts styles. 

Detail of the Elephant House facade: the rough surface is supposed to emulate its inhabitant%26#8217%3Bs formDetail of the Elephant House facade: the rough surface is supposed to emulate its inhabitan's form

The work of Tecton, and more specifically, the pioneering twentieth century architect, Berthold Lubetkin, a Russian émigré whose work was heavily influenced by the Constructivist functional architecture being imposed on the Soviet state, has undoubtedly left the most profound mark on the architectural fabric of London Zoo. Lubetkin’s penguin pool is indisputably the architectural star of London Zoo, with its pleasing curves and sublime white rendered façade. The curved, wafer-thin ramps, which cantilever and intertwine over the pool in a playful manner that mimics the enclosure’s inhabitants, appear to defy gravity and provide a striking focal point within the simple elliptical form, which surrounds them. The penguin pool is surely modernism at its most beautiful, with even the most hardened traditionalists unable to deny the exquisite simplicity of the form.

The post-war period saw the popularity of London Zoo explode, necessitating the need for new enclosures. The popular aesthetics of this period such as Brutalism and Constructivism joined the other myriad of styles in London Zoo to leave their mark for future generations of design aficionados to appreciate. The unique nature of the zoo also saw distinctive architectural styles emerge such as Zoomorphism – a style of Brutalism, which is marvellously expressive of its inhabitants. For example, the 1965 elephant house uses strong monolithic forms hewn from solid concrete to emulate the architect’s vision of a herd of elephants gathered around a watering hole. As one explores the elephant house, further symbolism begins to reveal itself, from the textured exterior of the grey, concrete building, supposed to imitate the skin of an elephant, to the dappled light piercing through the copper roof, which evokes the feeling and atmosphere of being under a jungle canopy.

Lubetkin's 1932 Gorilla House is considered to be one of the earliest modernist buildings built in BritainLubetkin's 1932 Gorilla House is considered to be one of the earliest modernist buildings built in Britain

As the zoo continues to evolve, it seems none of the innovation of the past structures has been forgotten, with eight of the buildings now Grade II listed and Lubetkin’s penguin pool and gorilla house Grade I listed. Of course now the focus of the zoo has changed. Envisaged as a venue purely for entertainment, the zoo now focuses strongly on conservation, and as a result the purpose of many new structures built within the zoo today has changed.  The new penguin pool, inaugurated in May of this year, strives to recreate the sense of wonder and anticipation older structures in the zoo achieved so successfully, whist still adhering to the conservation principles at the heart of London Zoo today, providing a more naturalistic environment designed to help the penguins thrive. In learning from the truly unique and progressive architectural past of London Zoo, the future architectural legacy of this fascinating smorgasbord of twentieth century design icons looks to be just as enthralling.

The new Penguin Pool in London Zoo is now open, with the closest tube stations at Camden Town or Regents Park.

 

 

All photographs by John Lenehan

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