Unhappy Feet: Lubetkin daughter's ‘sadness' at iconic penguin pool left unused

Concrete masterpiece gave zoo birds 'bumblefoot'

Thursday, 3rd January 2019 — By Tom Foot

Penguin Pool CREDIT: David Hastings

The Lubetkin penguin pool [Photo: TheMeatCase]

IT was the story of unhappy feet, the penguins suffering from aches and pains despite being set up in an iconic Regent’s Park des-res.

Not since 2004 have the Antarctic birds been seen in an iconic enclosure at London Zoo designed for them by the renowned modernist architect Berthold Lubetkin.

Some alligators briefly lived there afterwards but the zoo confirmed this week that it has not plans to use the grade-I listed pool, one of the most famous zoo buildings in the world, anytime in the near future. The penguins now live in a bigger enclosure, Penguin Beach, which opened in 2011.

But Mr Lubetkin’s daughter, Sasha Lubetkin, told the New Journal she was “terribly sad” to see her father’s 1934 masterpiece standing in the middle of the zoo unused. She said: “It was designed as a showcase and playground of captive penguins, and I can’t see that it would be suited to anything else,” adding in frustration: “Perhaps it’s time to blow it to smithereens.”

She added: “When my father designed the penguin pool, I understand he consulted [Sir] Julian Huxley [famous biologist] about the environment best suited to penguins. Of course, like all areas of human endeavour, knowledge about animals and their habits is constantly changing and evolving, so in all probability what was the latest thinking in the 1930s has long been superseded.”

Mr Lubetkin, a RIBA gold medal winner who died in 1990 , also designed the Highpoint flats in Highgate and the Finsbury Health Centre, as well as many celebrated housing blocks in London.

The pool – a model of which sits in the British Architectural Library in Portland Place – is still photographed by visitors to the zoo, particularly those with an eye for architectural history. Coldplay once posed for a photoshoot outside Lubetkin’s enclosure.

Ms Lubetkin said: “I remember going to the zoo as a small child and watching the keepers hurling fish in the air for the penguins to catch. Wonderful theatre for watching children.”

The discussion on the future of the structure came up again after being raised at the an end-of-year meeting of the Friends of Primrose Hill and Regent’s Park last month.

Sasha Lubetkin

It saw the zoo’s new director-general, Dominic Jermey, answer questions and explain why penguins needed a bigger pad.

“Dominic explained it was a concrete structure and experts had advised it was damaging penguins’ feet,” the friends report in their latest newsletter. “They need substrata they were used to in their natural habitat to protect their bones.” The grade-I pool was one of the first buildings to demonstrate the potential of reinforced concrete.

But the concrete, according to reports at the time of its closure, was found to be causing the birds to suffer a bacterial infection known as “bumblefoot”.

Ms Lubetkin said: “The tale I heard was that it was unsuitable because it didn’t allow the penguins to burrow. I understand that there are something like 40 varieties of penguin, and by no means all of them actually want to burrow.”

Berthold Lubetkin [Photo: Peter Moro]

Mr Jermey, a former British ambassador in Afghanistan, also talked about a £9million revamp of the famous Snowdon Aviary and a new complex which will be home to monkeys.

A zoo spokeswoman said: “The penguins haven’t lived in the grade I-listed Lubetkin penguin pool since 2004 – we have no current plans to do anything with the building. The penguins now live on Penguin Beach, Europe’s largest penguin pool, which has a rocky, sandy beach, nesting areas and a 1,200sqm pool holding 450,000 litres of water – alongside a penguin nursery where chicks can learn how to swim.”

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