‘Perhaps it’s time to blow it to smithereens’ – with this comment Sasha Lubetkin, the daughter of modernist architect Berthold, has reignited the debate over what to do with the Penguin Pool at London Zoo, which has sat abandoned for more than a decade after its little waddling inhabitants were removed. The fate of this tiny Grade I listed structure, frivolous and avant garde in equal measure, is a microcosm of the legacy of modernist architecture in the UK, which for some reason is still capable of stirring up culture war angst almost a century later.
The pool was one of the earliest UK commissions for Berthold Lubetkin (1901-90), an architect from now-Georgia who had enthusiastically thrown himself into revolutionary constructivism, but who sensed the winds of change as official Soviet taste drifted towards Stalinist neoclassicism. Received warmly into progressive cultural circles on his arrival in the UK in 1931, and sensing an opportunity for work, he formed a collective practice called Tecton a year later with a group of recent graduates. An early break for Tecton was being introduced to Geoffrey Vevers, superintendent of London Zoo, whose own socialism drew him to commissioning radical new architects, trying out ideas for modern society on gorillas and penguins before humans.
The Penguin Pool itself is an eye-shaped structure, roughly 30 metres long, with an elliptical pool at the centre, a few metres below ground level. It is surrounded by a concrete wall with steps, gaps and canopies in tight geometrical relationships, all painted white with occasional dashes of colour, showing the influence of Le Corbusier. The centrepieces of the structure, designed with the engineer Ove Arup, are two wafer-thin helicoidal ramps that entwine over the centre of the pool. Ostensibly points for hauling up and launching off, they were designed to provide stimulation and interest to the inhabitants, but also as a thrilling spatial experiment with the possibilities of reinforced concrete. At the outer limit of what was structurally possible at that point, they were a manifesto that modernism could go beyond just a ‘rational’ display of structural forces, but could employ gymnastic engineering for theatrical effects.
The Penguin Pool quickly became a significant work in the growing modernist canon, and Tecton soon were given the chance to design an entire zoo at Dudley, but their next significant works were the fantastic North London housing blocks Highpoint and Highpoint II, seminal examples of rationalism in architecture. Later Lubetkin projects included a number of council housing blocks across London, notable for their vertiginously dramatic staircases, such as those at Bevin Court in Islington, finished in 1954. Here the penguin pool’s circulation ramps are conceived as ‘social condensers’ that would stimulate human relations.
Lubetkin’s socialism was a lifelong commitment: he is one source to whom the phrase ‘nothing is too good for the ordinary person’ is attributed, and he designed a memorial to Lenin that legend has it he returned to by night and buried to prevent vandalism from the British Union of Fascists. But as the rational society he dreamed of failed to appear, disillusionment set in and he largely abandoned practice from the 1960s onwards.
The pool continued in use until 2004, when it was found an unsympathetic refurbishment had left surfaces that were causing the penguins infections on their feet. They were moved out, with eventually a new, much larger space opening for them in 2011. After a short period playing host to alligators the pool has been empty, hamstrung by its protected status.
But this is the point received opinion comes in. Instead of a mistaken refurbishment, some might say that the penguins never liked the space, they didn’t use the ramps, the enclosure even made them depressed. From a miniature manifesto of the new modern world, based on the latest in environmental research, the pool becomes a miniature of the hubris of architectural dreaming. In this telling, the geometry and spatial imagination create beauty for those of us standing looking in, but the contrived abstractions of habitat fail to accommodate the richness of lived experience, and alienation sets in. Modernism, like socialism, is all very good in theory, but people, or penguins, have to live with the results.
When the pool was listed in 1970, the Architects’ Journal caught up with Lubetkin but he was clearly not in the best of moods, telling them that ‘my personal interpretation is that these buildings cry for a world which has never come into being.’ It may seem odd that a play-space for our little tuxedoed avian friends could be taken that seriously, but then for modernists the future of the world was at stake: ‘The philosophical aims and orderly character of those designs is in a way diametrically opposed to the intellectual climate in which we live’ said Lubetkin; ‘the logical thing would be to blow them up.’
Zoo keepers and penguins at Berthold Lubetkin’s pool, London Zoo, 1939. Courtesy: Getty Images, Topical Press Agency