Animals for the Kids, Tectons for Dad – the Concrete Architecture of Dudley Zooilogical Gardens

If you exclude actual buildings, I’d wager that there are few 1930’s structures in England more famous than the Penguin Pool at London Zoo. Even those with a mere cursory knowledge of the UK’s key tourist attractions will be familiar with it. Famous in period, thanks to its innovative construction and wondrous sweeping lines, it has been celebrated as an ‘art deco’ masterpiece ever since. Poirot has been there, Bekonscot model village has a miniature recreation of it, and now, at long last, amorous starry-eyed couples can get married there; it’s nothing short of iconic.

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Photo: Bigday Weddings

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Photo: Avanti Architects

This pioneering slice of inter-war design, featuring two unsupported intersecting spiral-ramps, descending into an azure pool, was designed by Tecton, an influential architectural firm headed up by Russian émigré Berthold Lubetkin. Unveiled in 1934, it was Tecton’s second structure in the Zoo, following the previous year’s Gorilla House. Their pioneering early use of reinforced concrete (concrete set over a metal framework) allowed the construction of curvaceous adventurous designs not previously achievable through traditional methods.

Both structures are now justifiably Grade I listed and admired globally, but what of the firms follow up projects? If the Penguin Pool represented Tecton’s “Strawberry Fields Forever”, are you familiar with their “Sgt. Pepper”?dudleyzooposter

The success at London Zoo led to commissions for various projects, including, most notably, one from The Earl of Dudley, wishing to realise his dream of creating ‘The Most Up to Date Zoo in the World’. Built on a 40 acre site between ‘35 and ’37, and centred on the remains of Dudley’s C11th Castle, Tecton created thirteen innovative structures in a similar vein to those at London. This winning combination of exotic concrete experiments paired with exotic live animals proved a roaring success, with over 1 million visitors attending within the first 18 months. It is worth noting that in addition to the five key members of the Tecton Group, the celebrated structural engineer Ove Arup was also involved in the project (later famous for his work on Sydney Opera House).

Twelve of the original thirteen structures (now referred to simply as Tectons)  survive, and somewhat ironically, it’s the penguin pool that is no more. Following the onslaught of forty years worth of corrosive salt water containment, it was condemned and demolished in 1979. The others all remain, seven with grade II listed status, and five granted the coveted grade II*. The site was collectively given World Monument Status in 2009, and a £1.15 million heritage lottery fund grant followed in 2011, allowing the zoo to begin restoration of the Tectons one-by-one, a process that continues presently.

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DZG Penguin Pool, 1937-1979

My eldest daughter had been petitioning for a trip to a zoo for quite some time, so in January, on a bleak and near freezing morning, I obliged by treating the family to a maiden visit to DZG: Animals for the kids, Tectons for dad!

Most of the structures original purposes have changed over the years, and many of the walkways and steps have been cordoned off in the interest health & safety. Kiosks once used to serve refreshments, now act as unusual huts for informative displays, and generally, the Tectons remain more as monuments than functional buildings. Never the less, it is fascinating to get up close and personal with these impressive chunks of concrete. One has to keep reminding oneself that they are from the ‘30s, when this type of Brutalist construction is more typically associated with the flyovers and multi-story car parks of post-war redevelopments, some twenty to thirty years later.

In the winter, the place is virtually empty with most attractions closed for the down season. Great for unobstructed photos, less so for family enjoyment! Here follows a series of photographs from our adventure.

Spoiler alert, if you’re hoping to see exciting shots of the residents, please click away, as they were all sensibly hiding inside. This is purely about the architecture.

entrance

The famous entrance gates, no longer used as primary entry point.

welcome

This rather dilapidated brick hut greets the public as they approach from the car park.

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Polar Bear Complex – now home to an Asiatic Black Bear

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polar2

kiosk1

Kiosk 1 – originally for confectionery and ice cream

holes

 

discovery

Moat Cafe – Now The Discovery Centre, it was closed, we discovered nothing.

seals

Sea Lion Pool

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Bear Ravine – now home to a goat of some sort

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kiosk2

Kiosk 2 – in dazzling primary colours

oak kitchen

Castle Restaurant, inspired by the Queen Mary apparently

tropical bird house

Tropical Bird House – Now home to Asiatic Lions

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tropical bird house2

fireman

He’s always on the scene (fireman Sam)

steps

toilet

Toilets, Bin, Coke Dispenser

Find out more: www.dudleyzoo.org.uk

 

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About Art Deco Magpie

Seasoned Art Deco collector and blogger Philip Butler, aka Art Deco Magpie, has spent many years transforming the interior of his family home into a 1930’s time warp. Furniture, wall coverings, fixtures, fittings and carpets, nothing has been neglected from his quest to obtain near film set perfection. Combining a love of photography and passion for 20th century history, Philip is now working on his debut book; “Streamline Worcestershire – A Journey Through the Inter-War Modernist Architecture in the County“. Philip lives in Great Malvern with his wife and two young daughters. When not immersing himself in all things Art Deco, he can be found tinkering with classic cars, working in the alcoholic drinks trade, practicing writing in the third person, and trying to be a good dad!
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6 Responses to Animals for the Kids, Tectons for Dad – the Concrete Architecture of Dudley Zooilogical Gardens

  1. poshbirdy says:

    Some lovely structures here. I particularly love that wonderful entrance, the kiosks, the aviary/lions den…
    Thanks for sharing. Your family are very understanding!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Gwyn says:

    Unfortunately they were pretty rubbish for the animals!

    Like

  3. What a great post. Thank you. I was only reminded the other day about the Dudley Penguin pool when looking through some old Architectural Reviews for something else. The point about the Tecton buildings not being great for the animals is a good one, but it wasn’t for want of trying. The architects did quite a bit of work on talking to zoologists and keepers about what would be good for the animals, and their zoo buildings were designed with this in mind. But things didn’t always work out so well in practice, and now views are very different on what kinds of surroundings different species can thrive in. It’s good to see the buildings being used for something, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Philip, thanks for your informative comment. I was somewhat wary, writing about a C20th zoo 80 years on, given the changes in animal welfare since design. It’s great to hear about the consultations in period, and given the subsequent changes in use, and more ornamental nature these days, there should be little worry about. It’s a fascinating place!

      Like

  4. Pingback: Bingo, Striptease & Jazz; A Short History of Dudley Hippodrome | The Art Deco Magpie

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