London in the 30s was not keen on continental modernism. Modernism was all about foreign ideas, it smacked of socialism, and went against the prevailing ethos of Britain’s somewhat conservative pride in its historical architecture. (Even in the 80s, this was still the case when Prince Charles famously denounced a proposed modern glass extension to the National Gallery as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend”.)
But in the 30s, the London Zoo’s famous Penguin Pool made a huge success out of a modernist design, and Londoners loved it. The Penguin Pool was all curves and Le Corbusier – ribbon-like walkways swooping down like a double helix, cantilevers, ribbon windows and elliptical walls. It was even designed by a socialist-leaning Russian émigré, Berthold Lubetkin.
Architecture critic Rowan Moore says that, through its sheer charm, humour and grace, and the delightful way it was designed almost like a theatre to show off the penguins to zoo visitors it “smuggled the dangerous foreign ideology of Constructivism under the guise of creating a fun structure for lovable flightless birds”.
Perhaps it was the way the penguins reminded Londoners of their own suits, but whatever it was, the Penguin Pool made it possible for modernism to be seen as loveable and humane, rather than mechanical and ideological.
Funnily, the Penguin Pool is now a victim of its own success. When a new penguin enclosure was built for the London Zoo in the noughties, heritage laws prevented Lubetkin’s masterpiece from being altered at all, so now it stands as a preserved monument: modernism conserved.