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For the birds by James Hogan

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Joint winner

The abandoned penguin pool at London Zoo reminds me of a once-loved boozer that has fallen out of favour with the locals and sunk to a state of pervasive stagnation. In fact, there is a tendency to contemplate Lubetkin’s empty saloon as if waiting to be served; elbows propped on the counter, money at the ready, desperately trying to catch a barmaid’s eye.

Therein lies the difficulty with appreciating this building: you can’t quite inhabit it, not in the traditional sense. Rather, you are forced to wear it like a giant helmet, by leaning into its spherical realm. Once you’ve got your head in the zone, the curves and elliptical lines immediately swing your vision around the geometry of the structure. You unconsciously trace the circumference until your eyes stop, with the inevitability of a spinning coin, and rest on the interwoven concrete ramps, almost at the centre of the plan.

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When the ostensibly incongruous building first opened in 1934, it must have been quite a spectacle to see penguins parading around the stark enclosure; living art against a blank canvas.  The juxtaposition of their awkward waddle against the silken swirls of frozen symmetry would have been a powerful visual seduction.  The very idea of penguins cascading from Britain’s first truly Modernist piece of architecture, like drunken dinner guests in formal dress, seems almost to be a private joke between Lubetkin (pictured) and his tenants; a ruse that pandered to old and young alike. ‘Never work with children or animals’, but the penguin pool playfully enshrined the needs of both in what was actually a very serious piece of avant-garde architecture.

Admittedly, in the absence of any actual wildlife, the design becomes a casual victim of ‘architectural overanalysis’. After a beer with your lunch it can even seem that the lucid form of the plan abstractly references the bird that it once fostered.  The perimeter wall traces an elliptical outline approximating the pleasing, anatomical barrel of a penguin’s torso, which in itself is unmistakably egg shaped. Maybe, maybe not, but extending the metaphor, Lubetkin has cracked the shell of his concrete halo with a series of very deliberate apertures.  This sets up a voyeuristic discourse between the viewer and the viewed. All the while, the birds are never exposed to the threat of a complete human silhouette.

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From the penguin’s nested vantage, the waist-height datum would have cut spectators in half and distilled their visual intimidation down to a series of floating, amorphous appendages and bobbing children’s heads.  

The nature of the openings in the concrete also cunningly frames the unknowing spectator. Opposing visitors find themselves gazing across the void at a mirrored composition of evolving faces, picked out perfectly in the fenestration of the structure’s clean definitions. In some ways it even has the ritualistic hallmarks of a primordial gathering place: monolithic, open to the elements, sandwiched between the primitive constants of water and the sky, and with an enraptured community of settlers huddled round.

 It may strike you as a strangely unique way to showcase birds, in plan, but whether it’s an aerial irony, or a bias towards the conventions of architectural drawing, Lubetkin knows what he is doing. Old footage of the pool, in all its pomp, helps to contrast the labour under which the birds negotiated the dry terrain with the grace of their movement when submerged in the shallow water.  This was poetic space-making filtered through pragmatic democracy, where everyone has the best seat in the house. Lubetkin made the brutality of steel and concrete appear impossibly malleable and, although later rejected, he had imbued his efforts with a knowledgeable respect for natural science and animal behaviour.

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Today the building lies functionally dormant but aesthetically dominant in its occupation of the site. Where the concrete corkscrew once coiled with life and movement, it now looms like an engineered vortex that has sucked our heroes away. Like the supplanted residents of 1960s tower blocks, it is all too easy to draw wry comparisons between failed zoological architecture and other modernist ‘housing’ structures from post-war Britain, but ultimately neither proved capable of catering for their occupants. Whether it is urban devolution and a loss of community or the onset of arthritis in penguins, concrete, it seems, lacks the soft touch. However, the penguin pool is more than just concrete. It is a wistful marriage of materials, technology, form, function and composition. Like a genetic step in architectural evolution, Lubetkin’s contemporary colosseum stands as both a precursor to Wright’s Guggenheim and a successor to Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, but intriguingly, the most skilfully applied material in Lubetkin’s pallet was his use of the birds themselves. What a shame it is that a few of them are not occasionally permitted to visit their former residence on day release.

The next time you are at the zoo, as you lean against that glistening white wall and fill Lubetkin’s emptiness with a cathartic stream of consciousness, elevate yourself above the bedlam and try to extol the pioneering architect who once intrinsically linked each individual occupant to the structural articulation of the building as a whole.  

The genius of the scheme was in how it employed the penguin’s movement to animate the lifeless forms.  They were the cogs that made the visual mechanism turn, and now, like a watch that has stopped ticking, the old penguin pool has been reduced to a splendid, yet redundant, pavilion; a monument to the paradox of a flightless bird. 

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