Fantl was on a research trip for an upcoming exhibition, Modern Architecture in England, that would heavily feature the striking structures Soviet émigré architect Berthold Lubetkin’s firm Tecton had built at the London and Whipsnade Zoos, among them the Penguin Pond. Realizing “that no still photograph could do justice to the pool or its denizens,”1 on the spot Fantl commissioned Moholy to produce a film about Tecton’s animal enclosures—a visual foil for the isometric photographs and floor plans that would dominate the rest of the New York show.
Lasting sixteen minutes, The New Architecture and the London Zoo (1937) is something of an enigma. On the one hand, it provides a unique intersection between two of Europe’s leading modernists, who through different media explored the social and aesthetic potential of new industrial materials. Lubetkin and Moholy both sought to transform the urban environment by pointing the way to a utopian socialism in which humankind, at its most technologically advanced, might become reconciled with primordial nature. On the other hand, The New Architecture is not a very interesting film. If mentioned at all, Moholy’s critics tend to gloss over it in a couple of sentences.2 Compared with the rest of his avant-garde practice it is rather lackluster, even conventional.
But Moholy’s film is worth our attention on at least two counts. Firstly, its lack of modernist vigor reveals an important tension, if not a basic incompatibility, between the allied practices of modern architecture and modern filmmaking. Within the film, Lubetkin’s buildings and Moholy’s cinematography keep threatening to cancel each other out. Secondly, The New Architecture highlights the complex place of animals within modernism more generally. As recent émigrés to Britain, both men intended their zoo work to lead to bigger things—municipal commissions for Lubetkin,3 a teaching post in the United States for Moholy.4 These animals, then, were a pragmatic step towards furthering both men’s respective humanist projects. Critically revisiting the film and zoo buildings depicted reveals both the species hierarchy on which the two men’s modernisms were founded, and how this could sometimes be destabilized when zoo animals were captured by Moholy’s unleashed camera.
The beastly dynamics of Lubetkin’s modernism were clearly evident in his most famous animal enclosure, the Penguin Pond (or “Pool” as it would subsequently be renamed), which opened in May 1934. Rejecting the naturalistic backdrops that had dominated zoo architecture since Tierpark Hagenbeck opened in Hamburg, the Pond bore no visual resemblance to the penguins’ indigenous habitat: instead, it appeared willfully man-made and artificial (figure 1). An ovoid of white concrete, its curved outer walls were echoed by the shallow pool of water inside, from which arose a double helix of cantilevered walkways. Lubetkin even left an over-hanging ailanthus tree in place to visually emphasize the Pond’s geometric abstraction.5
This rejection of naturalistic landscaping was a deliberate ploy to propagate the principles of the “new biology,” which had dominated London Zoo since Sir Peter Chambers Mitchell became its Secretary in 1903.6 These equated a creature’s health with the state of its relationship to its everyday environment—something honed by years of evolutionary development and clearly disrupted by a forced relocation to London. The Pond didn’t look like the penguins’ homeland, because instead it had been designed to act like it. Based on close zoological study, it was scientifically programmed to supply its residents with the optimal conditions for swimming, nesting and walking—right down to the mixed use of concrete, rubber and slate flooring to correctly stimulate their feet—while its elegant geometries were a celebration of human intellect and conscious design. Its circular form stood in active disdain to its chaotic surroundings; set amidst the contingencies of the messy natural landscape, it was intended to appear as a self-contained penguin utopia.7
Lubetkin’s penguin enclosure was thus heavily didactic. Architecture, he believed, had a moral imperative to present a vision of social progress and “to make the necessary appear desirable.”8 As with the Penguin Pond, Tecton’s other zoo pavilions sought to educate visitors about the environmental principles at the heart of the new biology, for these were as applicable to human social groupings as they were to colonies of penguins. All living creatures share the same processes of environmental adaptation, but humans had become conscious of the fact and were now trying to reform their environment through scientifically-conceived architecture and planning. Sympathetic journals made poignant connections between the visible well-being of the rehoused animals and the unaddressed needs of London’s slum-dwellers.9 The former’s exile from the indigenous terrain to which their bodies had become adapted over eons was a useful analogy to the human damage done by a century of industrialization. Modernist architecture was presented as a panacea for both.
Such messages were more easily conveyed to journal readers than to casual zoo visitors. Lubetkin’s enclosures thus had to deploy other methods to communicate their occupants’ healthy condition, which paradoxically drew on very conventional modes of animal spectatorship.10 In 1938, Lubetkin described his structures as “architectural settings,” presenting animals “dramatically to the public, in an atmosphere comparable to that of a circus.”11 But as John Berger12 and Jonathan Burt13 note, zoo animals are uniformly unspectacular as a source of entertainment. Compared to their edited and narrativized counterparts on the stage or the screen, beasts in cages usually appear dull, lethargic, lacking in plot. This was a problem for the London Zoo of the 1930s. Tecton’s buildings would attempt to remedy this problem, by engineering a performance of scientifically-produced health and liveliness. Lubetkin’s enclosures thus stage-managed their inhabitants towards enacting a playful exuberance which, for an audience schooled in popular cinema, might register as complete adaptation.
At the Penguin Pond, the birds were choreographed to clumsily waddle up its steps and ramped walkways, and then to dart, in sleek and dramatic contrast, through the pool of water beneath. Journalists clearly sensed that this was, in fact, a stage set. The Illustrated London News, for instance, praised the “decorative effect” of the monochromatic penguins against “the clear white concrete … and the blue of the pool,”14 while their shuffling up its central walkways reminded the Daily Mirror of “self-conscious chorus girls on a ‘joy plank’.”15
These structures of theatrical spectatorship helped visitors come to terms with the startling modernism of Lubetkin’s design. Viewers aligned themselves along the structure’s outer parapets, from which they gazed both at the penguins’ antics below and at the line of spectating humans opposite, who mirrored their own amusement. At the Pond’s eastern end, visitors were even framed by rectangles cut into the concrete wall, which resembled an oblong cinema screen.16 Both birds and humans thus played a part within Lubetkin’s highly scripted ecology of vision. Through their apparently joyful antics, each displayed a different adaptation to this new architectural environment, leaving no one in doubt that human ingenuity had facilitated the well-being of both.