'Tecton buildings' in Historic England: The Black Country by Andrew Homer
The Black Country is home to a remarkable set of buildings created in the Modernist style by Russian born Berthold Lubetkin and his Tecton group in the 1930s. Historic England: The Black Country includes a whole chapter on the Tecton buildings which form part of Dudley Zoo and Castle. Pictures from the Historic England Archive show the Tecton buildings in their prime having been taken just a few years after they were completed in 1937. One building out of the original thirteen, the Penguin Pool, has not survived as salt water reacted badly with the concrete.
The Tecton group of young architects had been formed in 1932 to explore ‘modern architecture’. The Dudley Zoo commission came about when the third Earl of Dudley, William Humble Eric Ward, formed a partnership with the wealthy Marsh family and Captain Frank Cooper. The Earl of Dudley had a private exotic animal collection and Captain Cooper was a co-owner of the recently closed Oxford Zoo. The group had access to stock for the new zoo and looked for an architect. At the time of its opening in 1937 it was described as ‘the most modern in Europe, a zoo without bars’. The Tecton group had already worked on commissions for London Zoo and Whipsnade Zoo. The Penguin Pool at London Zoo completed in 1934 being of particular note.
The buildings exploited the use of a new building material, pre-stressed concrete reinforced with tensioned steel rods, which enabled the iconic curves and sweeps of the structures to be achieved. The buildings were constructed with the help of a young Danish structural engineer, Ove Arup. Visitors were able to view the animals roaming freely rather than through the bars of a cage. Paradoxically, as far as the animals were concerned, the structures created for them were far from being appropriate environments. Virtually no effort had been expended towards recreating the features of the animal’s natural environment. Indeed, the purpose was to give the maximum number of entrance fee paying customers a view of the animals unrestricted by the bars of a cage.
Nevertheless, the architectural merits of the Castle Hill site cannot be ignored. The Tecton group designed the buildings to fit in with the natural environment of the hillside below Dudley Castle. This approach is exemplified by the impressive Bear Ravine. Built into an existing ravine the building gave visitors an unrestricted view of the whole enclosure. The building was so badly in need of restoration that it was on the English Heritage ‘at risk’ register but to date has been fully restored to its former glory. Twelve of the original Tecton buildings survive but some are still in desperate need of refurbishment.
As well as animal enclosures the Tecton group of buildings include the original entrance consisting of five interlocking curves of concrete, cafés, kiosks, and the Queen Mary Ballroom built to resemble an ocean liner. In 2010 the remaining set of twelve buildings were added to the World Monuments Fund Watch List. The good news is that Heritage Lottery funding worth £1.15 million pounds was secured to fund restoration work on some of the buildings. These included the Bear Ravine, the front entrance, Safari shop and one of the kiosks. That the Tecton buildings at Dudley were added to the World Monuments Fund Watch list is testament to their architectural value and extreme rarity.
Andrew Homer's new book Historic England: The Black Country is available for purchase now.