The London Zoo’s Gorilla House (1932-33) and Penguin Pool (1933-34) were the first and second commissions for the British architecture group Tecton, and brought to prominence the architect Berthold Lubetkin and the engineer Ove Arup. Both structures embodied ideas based on Corbusier’s notion of a domestic space being a machine à habiter. Since animals were doing the living, the architecture included such things as sliding and revolving walls to control the environment for the gorillas, and multiple diving platforms and enclosed nesting houses beneath trees for the penguins. In their genuine attempt to provide for the welfare of the animals, and their advanced visual and engineering directives, the two buildings are monuments of Modernist British architecture and in 1970 were listed as Grade 1 structures by English Heritage. Happily, both gorillas and penguins have moved on to homes better suited to their needs rather than the public’s bedazzlement. The Gorilla House has been repurposed as a home for lemurs and, though empty, the Penguin Pool remains an evocative setting, now silent except for the sound of the central fountain. One imagines what is missing: the calls of the birds echoing off the elliptical walls, the sliding of their aerodynamic forms down the double-helix ramps and through the pool, the appearance of their elegant black and white bodies against the blinding white of the structure and the cerulean blue of the water, like so many James Bonds poolside at an ultra-swanky villa. But that was the dream. In reality, there were endless rows of gawking humans, excessive heat and light, unforgiving surfaces underfoot, and inadequate protection from urban predators. A zoo environment can never be the coast of the Antarctic or South Africa.
Since it remains utilized, the Gorilla House does not yet provoke the kind of thinking that its more illustrious and unoccupied neighbor does. But there is a built-in bench near the entrance for those who might wish to wait for that moment to arrive.