Modernity for penguins — modernity for all!

Berthold Lubetkin’s celebrated
Penguin Pool in London (1934)
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Image: A penguin pauses
midway down the ramp
of Lubetkin’s pool (1934)

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Aviary, London zoological garden

Reyner Banham

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From The Architectural Review.

(№ 138: Sept. 1965). Pg. 186.

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Collapsed goal-posts among the trees — this, undoubtedly, is the first impression of the North Aviary from Primrose Hill, and equally undoubtedly it is a very belated contribution to the Arcadian tradition in British architecture. But, within that tradition, it does not belong to the gimcrack wing that gave us so many fake ruins and other collapsed objects among trees; rather, it belongs to the tough-minded stream whose triumphs are the palm stove at Kew Gardens, or Paxton’s Victoria Regia house at Chatsworth.

Lubetkin and Tecton's Penguin Pool (built 1934, photo late 1930s)

Lubetkin and Tecton’s Penguin Pool (built 1934)

In common with these great temples of acquisitive botany, the aviary is a walk-through exhibition-environment. This is not a total innovation at Regent’s Park Zoo, because one is also permitted to share the same physical space as the humming-birds, for instance. But to build on this scale and in the open is a very different problem from the creation of the small, totally artificial environment in which the humming-birds enjoy a manufactured climate secured by double-doored light-trap entrances. In the North Aviary the problem was more that of taming a piece of the existing topography and covering it with an enclosure high enough and broad enough for large birds to fly convincingly — and yet keep the public close enough to avoid the “Whipsnade effect” of sheer distance and natural surroundings making the exhibits invisible. With very little ingenuity, the form and levels of the present site would probably have made for better-than-average visibility even with an enclosure that permitted observation only from the outside. The creation of an internal observation route, by means as complex as a dog-leg bridge without intermediate supports, therefore proposes a significant improvement over outside viewing — and if the design failed to deliver this, then it would fail as architecture however handsome the covering structure. But quite obviously (though not so obviously that one does not have to explain it, alas) the bridge offers a bird’s-eye-type view of the cliff-face that no rearrangement of the solid topography could afford, except by making an equally high cliff directly opposite, and cliff-nesting birds do not nest on the sides of trenches. The other views, of birds washing and wading in the cascades for instance, are supernumerary benefits by comparison, though their sum-total is a substantial additional justification for the bridge. Continue reading