Saturday, June 03, 2006

Dudley Zoo & Modernist Architecture

We went to Dudley Zoo this week with Molly's friend Olivia.
Had, as usual, a lovely time.
Dudley Zoo is a strange zoo. It's full of memories for me, since I grew up in Dudley in the 70s & 80s. But it's not the animals that really make me return, it's a combination of the memories and the architecture.

It must have been incredible back in 1937, when the zoo opened.
Over 250,000 people walked through those incredible archways that year, an amazing figure for the time.
But the magnificence of the zoo didn't end there, it had been turned into a plaything for the Tecton company of Berthold Lubetkin - the architect behind the famous London Zoo penguin pool. They created 12 stunning pieces of Modernist architecture, from the sweeping entrance arches to the large animal enclosures through to the smaller kiosks. Each enclosure was placed directly into it's environment, using the contours of the hillside to make a beautiful architectural statement.
(More on Tecton & Dudley Zoo here & here)

Of course, back in 1937, animal welfare wasn't particularly high on the agenda, and the Tecton designed animal enclosures were all (to borrow a common buzz phrase) "not fit for purpose".
The animals were in enclosures that were far too small, unnatural, alien and completely unstimulating.
Even as a small child I always knew there was something very wrong with a Polar Bear that just stood on a stark concrete slab and swayed backwards and forwards for hours on end. The other enclosures were no better; the Large apes house was a terrible place, more jail than habitat & the magnificent sweeping pools for the seals and penguins were, at one terrible time used to house a whale that could barely move in the confines of the small pool.
The saddest thing about Dudley Zoo is that the two aspects of the zoo; the magnificent animals and the magnificent architecture were just simply incompatible.

Sadly, very few of the Tecton enclosures are used and some have been changed and adapted almost beyond recognition.
Dudley Zoo suffered poor attendance and little redevelopment for many years and became a dreadful place in the late 80s and 90s, full of tired, badly designed enclosures. It seems to be improving over the last few years and quite rightly focuses on the animals now, creating new, large enclosures such as the football field sized Chimp enclosure.
But this focus on improving facilities for the animals means that there is no money available from the Zoo for repairing and restoring the Tecton enclosures. Which is a terrible shame, as once properly restored, these beautiful examples of Modernist architecture would be an attraction in themselves.

Dudley Council did announce a £33m scheme of improvements at the Zoo site but this made scant reference to the Tecton buildings and I fear they will just be allowed to decay and remain forgotten delights.

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