Last weekend I went to London Zoo for the first time. The thing I liked most – apart from the animals obviously – was the Penguin Pool.
The Penguin Pool was created in the 1930s by Berthold Lubetkin and Ove Arup. It’s a masterpiece of modernist architecture, but the penguins don’t live there any more. They were evicted in 2004 amid concerns that waddling around on reinforced concrete was hurting their joints.
I was transfixed by the Penguin Pool. The intensity of light, the curved white space, the bold double helix in the centre: I didn’t know what to do with the space, but I had a strong urge to go in there and use it somehow. Obviously the penguins didn’t feel the same way. I guess me and penguins don’t see eye to eye on everything after all.
JG Ballard’s landscapes of broken suburban landscapes being reappropriated by nature came to mind when I gazed into the Penguin Pool. Crystal-shelled armadillos crawling along the floors of long-empty swimming pools, that sort of thing.
Sometimes architecture serves a purpose, sometimes it doesn’t. Like the brutalist Elephant House, another listed structure at London Zoo that no longer houses its original tenants, the Penguin Pool failed to accommodate the needs of penguins just as Le Corbusier’s grand aesthetic failed to address the problems of human cities.
But this doesn’t detract from the beauty and impact these works can retain. For me, the Penguin Pool’s only failing is that the creatures it was really designed for just haven’t been invented yet.