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13 November 2014

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You are in: Birmingham > People > Stories > Worldwide plea over Dudley Zoo buildings

Worldwide plea over Dudley Zoo buildings

Dudley Castle was founded shortly after the Norman Conquest of 1066, and was mentioned in the Domesday book, yet it is the Tecton modernist architecture of the surrounding zoo that preservation groups are trying to save.

Dudley Zoo's main entrance

Dudley Zoo's main entrance

When Dudley Zoo first opened on May 18, 1937, a reported 250,000 people attempted to visit the site to see exotic animals housed in some of the most futuristic concrete structures in the world.

Thousands queued down as far as The Broadway to get into what was then considered the most modern zoo in the world - the zoo without bars!

Dudley Castle

Dudley Castle

The weight of the heaving crowds even caused some gates to collapse, which means the official attendance of 50,445 is acknowledged by historians to be well below the actual number of visitors who gained admission.

Tecton buildings

Now, more than 70 years after its grand opening caused a stir, preservation group the World Monuments Fund (WMF) has brought global attention back to Dudley Zoo by declaring its architecture an endangered heritage site.

It is one of six sites in the country, and only 93 worldwide, to make it onto its 2010 list, which includes Machu Picchu in Peru.

The Zoo’s 12 animal display houses are the largest collection of Tecton buildings in the world and some of the most important examples of modernist architecture still in existence.

Lubetkin also designed the famous Penguin Pool and Gorilla House at London Zoo

Lubetkin also designed at London Zoo

Constructed around the ruins of a medieval castle, the designs are the work of celebrated Russian Berthold Lubetkin, who died in 1990, and his architectural practice, Tecton.

Castle Hill

Yet years of under-investment and changing public tastes, which have seen a movement away from austere concrete designs, have contributed to the buildings' slow decline.  

Criticisms leveled by animal rights campaigners over the enclosures' suitability for animals has also hamstrung Zoo bosses in their planning for the site.

Developers St Modwen also pulled out in 2008 of partnering Dudley Council to redevelop a £100m scheme on the site of Dudley Zoo and castle. The council, St Modwen and the Zoo had been working on plans for a leisure and heritage scheme on the 148-acre site at Castle Hill for seven years.

Jill Hitchman, who has researched the history of Dudley Zoo, says the announcement is welcome news in helping the attraction obtain funding to preserve the buildings for the next 70 years.

Jill Hitchman

Jill Hitchman in one of the kiosks

Criticism from vicars

"Fewer and fewer people are around to remember what a buzz the Zoo's opening caused in the country," she adds.

"When Dudley Zoo opened the nearest zoo would have been in Chester so it was a major attraction in what was a thriving market town.

"At this time nothing opened on Sundays and it came in for criticism in newspapers from vicars because worshippers couldn't wait to get out of church to visit the zoo!

"It was the most modern zoo in Europe and it was the first time a zoo without bars had been seen in Europe as before that animals could only be seen in cages."

Lion Ridge

Lubetkin is arguably the most important figure in the British Modern Movement in the pre-war period and as head of the prolific Tecton practice, he brought a Russian's revolutionary zeal to a British architectural scene which seemed to be completely out of step with the development of modernism elsewhere.

By the time he had effectively retired in 1950, Lubetkin and Tecton had built everything from zoo buildings to luxury flats, as well as lauded examples of planned social housing estates.

The iconic birdhouse

The iconic birdhouse

Zoo chief executive Peter Suddock says the Zoo has been working closely with The Twentieth Society and English Heritage for more than two years to get greater recognition for the architectural importance of its Tecton buildings.

In Easter 2009 the Zoo opened 'Lion Ridge', a £500,000 wraparound enclosure and paddocks for highly endangered Asian lions, incorporating the site's iconic Tecton Birdhouse, and Mr Suddock hopes more money can now be secured to continue such work.

"Our aim now is for the Tectons to become internationally recognised which will help us to secure funding, which was the whole purpose of the World Monuments Fund exercise," he says.

"They have long been recognised as architecturally important structures and our much acclaimed launch of Lion Ridge has proved they can be adapted and used for their original purposes; as enclosures and housing for some of the world's rarest animals.

"Coupled with a scheduled monument, the 11th century Dudley Castle, and a 20-acre zoo set on an historic wooded hillside of geological importance with limestone caverns, the Tectons make DZG a unique attraction and truly deserving of world status."

One of the Zoo's disued kiosks

One of the Zoo's disued kiosks

Most at risk

Dr Jonathan Foyle, chief Executive of World Monuments Fund Britain, says its WMF 'Watch for 2010'  is an important way of helping to preserve buildings most at risk for future generations. 

“The aim of the Watch is not simply to raise awareness of the sites most at risk; we endeavour to involve people in their regeneration and development," he says.

"We are not anti-progress, we’re in favour of sustainable stewardship and there is undoubtedly a need to balance heritage concerns and other priorities.”

'Heritage asset'

Preservation campaign group The Twentieth Century Society has been lobbying for the Zoo's inclusion on the WMF list for some time as it says Lubetkin’s work at Dudley Zoo is underappreciated.

The group says because of changing practices of animal management some of the 12 reinforced concrete structures, which were built between 1935 and 1937, can no longer be used to house animals and that they are in urgent need of action if they are to be restored sensitively as a singular heritage asset.

In their submission to the WMF the group adds: "The design of the Dudley Zoo ensemble, unique in the UK and rare within Europe, consists of 12 reinforced concrete animal display 'houses' and pavilions, juxtaposed against a natural setting

Snow Leopard

A snow leopard

"The Zoo dramatically communicates the interrelationships of artistic, social, civic, research and natural values which typify the early British Modernist movement.

"Its uniqueness and integrity warrant inclusion on the Watch."

The Zoo's 12 Tectons include: Queen Mary Restaurant, Elephant House, Kiosks one and two; Sealion Pool, Bear Ravine, Safari Cafe, Reptiliary, Birdhouse, Moat Cafe, Zoo Entrance and the Polar Bear Triple Complex.

last updated: 08/10/2009 at 09:47
created: 07/10/2009

Have Your Say

Dudley Zoo's Tecton architecture - love it or loathe it?

The BBC reserves the right to edit comments submitted.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
As Berlin-based writers interested in culture and architecture across Europe, we are sometimes appalled by the woeful lack of regard for landmark buildings in the modernist tradition. Does it really take outsiders like us to highlight that Dudley Zoo has some of the most spectacularly important modernist buildings in the world? The Tecton complex at Dudley Zoo was not inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List for nothing. These buildings are more than 'architecturally interesting'. They are of seminal importance in the development of 20th century architecture. We hope that the authorities in Dudley will take urgent steps to prevent their further decline.

Stew Dent
Although architecturally interesting, many of these structures are in a poor state of repair. Their presence in the zoo appears to be a millstone around their necks, as I'm sure the zoo doesn't have sufficient funds to fully restore them to their former glory and their preservation status prevents the zoo from moving forward and re-developing the site further. Great improvements have been made in many areas of the site in recent years. If the WMF is so keen on preserving these structures they should help fund their repair & be receptive to some degree of re-development that would allow them to remain in some form whilst allowing the zoo to provide new & better animal enclosures. If the status quo continues, these buildings will continue to deteriorate until there is no option but to demolish them.

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