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Penguin’s-Eye View

Lázló Moholy-Nagy meets Berthold Lubetkin at the London Zoo

Figure 1: The Penguin Pond at London Zoo. Postcard c.1934. Author’s collection.

One day in September 1936, three people stood looking at the new Penguin Pond in London Zoo: Ernestine Fantl, a curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA); Hazen Sise, a young Canadian architect; and the Hungarian artist and former Bauhaus master, Lázló Moholy-Nagy.

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.

I

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.

Figure 2:
Still from Lázló Moholy-Nagy, The New Architecture and the London Zoo, 1937.

II

With its avant-garde camera angles and disruptive edits, Lubetkin found Moholy’s The New Architecture to be deeply problematic:

As I had been afraid, it was an aggregate of disconnected sense-data, and had very little to say about the buildings or about the world for which they were intended.17

This comment points to a founding mismatch produced by the contrasting media through which the two men pursued their modernist endeavors. Lubetkin approached humans’ relationship to their everyday environment through the organization of space, whereas the primacy of visual perception led Moholy to prioritize light and optics. Starting in the early 1920s, he had been using photography to reveal new truths about light’s dynamic properties, particularly by placing objects directly onto photographic paper. Yet, the camera also marked an exciting stage in the evolution of human vision. Advances like photomicrography, telescopy and radiography were, he argued, a “psychological transformation of our eyesight,”18 heightening humanity’s comprehension of the properties of time and space. The camera’s great power lay in its ability to make a familiar object seem radically strange, dissolving habitual ways of seeing and destroying accreted cultural associations.19 Moholy hoped that when viewers understood these at the time challenging photographs, it would open the way to a more profound visual reality and, ultimately, social revolution.20

To this end, Moholy’s first book, Painting, Photography, Film (1925), collated a conspicuously diverse range of mostly found photographs, including advertisements, trick shots, photograms and extreme close-ups. With only minimal captions to guide them, readers leafing through the book were abandoned to infer whatever meaningful connections they could. Painting, Photography, Film was intended to be a kind of training manual for the dawning age of proliferating vision, a tool that might equip the reader with the tools to more profoundly negotiate the mediated urban landscape.21 These concerns would soon lead Moholy to explore montage in two short city-symphony films: Marseille Vieux Port (1929) and Berlin Still-life (1930-1).

The New Architecture reused many well-established devices from this corpus to unsettle the viewer’s perceptual habits, although these clashed violently with Tecton’s own pedagogical strategies. As Lubetkin recalled in 1971:

[Moholy] wanted simply to record, and maintained that the world was full of new shapes, textures and movements. Along with rotating turbine blades and propellers, there were also my buildings; it was unnecessary to comment on them, sufficient to confront them as they stood, and open the onlooker’s eyes. I protested against such a naturalistic approach, which concentrates on appearances, rather than attempting a systematic account of the underlying reality.22

Here was a basic disagreement about where the “underlying reality” of his buildings was located. For the architect, it was in their technological engineering of both a stable living environment and a meaningful encounter between humans and animals. On these terms, Moholy’s film should have followed cues provided by the MoMA exhibition’s broader purpose, explaining those features as straightforwardly as possible. Yet, for Moholy such a plain account would undermine the combined potential of the buildings and the film to produce novel interplays of light. The New Architecture is considerably more interested in how shadows fall across expanses of white concrete, or in how Lubetkin’s use of glass or water produces reflections or refractions. Exploring such optical effects, Moholy sought to wrench Tecton’s pavilions away from the semantic preconceptions of architectural photography and floorplans; to explore instead the visual possibilities of the movie camera’s encounter with the building.

The New Architecture is thus more than simply a record. Given Moholy’s faith in the moving image as an agent of human evolution, merely documenting the ordinary visitor’s experience would have been regressive. Rather, he foregrounds the camera as a technical apparatus via unexpected angles and disorienting edits, preventing the settling of a dominant humanist viewpoint. Even so, The New Architecture is much less radical than his earlier city symphonies; hence, its lukewarm reputation amongst scholars. It remains tied to a didactic narrative: after an explanatory intertitle, Moholy’s camera approaches, inspects and leaves each building in turn. While the film’s images may work hard to resist such a didactic framing, the basic conflict between Moholy’s radical aesthetics and the requirements of the MoMA exhibition finally resulted in compromise.

Yet, it is vital to consider how Moholy’s film engages with the animals inside Lubetkin’s new enclosures. Celebrating Tecton’s buildings meant presenting their tenants as happy, well-adjusted film stars. Because this was already scripted into the design, Moholy’s film would have ended up replicating the familiar conventions of the cinematic newsreel, as was the case with the British Pathé segment on the newly opened Penguin Pond, “Points on Penguins,” from 11 November 1935.23 The New Architecture thus wrestled with a second dilemma: how to satisfy the viewers’ preconceptions of what healthy zoo animals should look like while disrupting those same expectations in the name of modernist progress.

Moholy’s thought echoed Lubetkin in assuming the superiority of humans over animals. Only humans had the conscious will to improve their inhabitation of the world. Significantly, within Painting, Photography, Film, eleven of the book’s images were of animal bodies—including a photomicrograph of a head-louse, a snapshot of a flock of flying cranes, and an x-ray photograph of a dead frog—as if to underscore the unbridgeable ontological gap between the camera-wielding human beings and the animals who become photographic objects. Yet this founding hierarchy was not always so secure. Since Moholy’s new vision was defined in opposition to conventional modes of seeing, it initially lacked a descriptive lexicon. Time and again, Moholy took recourse in zoological metaphors to fill the void. In 1926, for instance, he illustrated an article on the expansion of human vision with a photograph of a homing pigeon with a camera strapped to its neck. Of the five aerial photographs printed alongside this image, two were seemingly taken by the pigeon and three from an airplane in flight.24 The technologically enhanced human eye thus uncannily returned towards that of the animal, as reinforced by Moholy’s use of the terms ‘”bird’s-eye” and “worm’s-eye” view to describe photographic foreshortening from above and below. His final metaphor for such photographic experimentation was also distinctly beastial: that of “the unleashed camera.”25

Within most of Moholy’s corpus, his zoological metaphors are not particularly troubling. Yet due to its subject matter, The New Architecture brought these undercurrents to the surface. The central predicament of the MoMA commission—how to show exuberant animals on screen while at the same time challenging the conventions behind doing so—created a persistent uncertainty in Moholy’s film with regards to the representational status of the film-camera eye. The film’s journey toward a technologically-enhanced human vision was haunted by a third way of seeing—that of the captive zoo animal. Throughout The New Architecture, Moholy’s beastly metaphors threaten to become literal, in turn disrupting the conventions of spectatorship programmed into Lubetkin’s buildings. Challenging the architect’s well-worn staging of parodic anthropomorphism, Moholy’s film slides unevenly towards technological zoomorphism.

This is particularly acute at the end of The New Architecture when the film turns its attention to the Penguin Pond. Introduced via an exterior shot from a skewed 45-degree angle, the camera then pans up and across in an arc, returning the viewer to a comfortably naturalistic viewpoint. But uncertainty soon reappears via a sudden close-up of the cantilevered walkways; as the camera rises slowly from the ground, a large king penguin fills the frame, standing on one of the lens-level ramps. Unexpectedly shrunken to what is clearly penguin height and apparently positioned on a walkway ourselves, we exchange brief glances with the massive bird on screen. But then we are back outside the enclosure, observing the central double-helix from the stage-managed position of an ordinary human visitor. Seconds later we are inside again, looking up from the ground at a row of spectators crowding over the parapet. As the camera pans right, a young boy’s face stares willfully into the camera, fixing us once again in the position of a penguin.

Throughout this short sequence, the viewer oscillates between the building’s prescriptive human-centered vantage points, some surprising and unfamiliar zoomorphic perspectives, and non-naturalistic angles that make us aware of the technological presence of the camera. None of these positions lasts more than a few seconds. For instance, one “bird’s-eye view” looking down sharply from the shelter’s roof at a cluster of human visitors is humorously literalized by a quick counter-shot back at a Humboldt penguin high up on the canopy: before the viewer can process this exchange, the camera pans down to reveal that this bird is, in fact, standing on a central walkway. What seemed like a conventional shot/counter-shot relay turns out, confusingly, to be nothing of the sort.

Moholy’s unleashed camera sabotages the conventions of animal spectatorship Lubetkin’s pavilions worked hard to secure throughout The New Architecture. If the film often rehearses the visitor’s programmed gaze, it also repeatedly confounds it, mimicking the gaze of the animals and troubling the species hierarchy on which both Lubetkin’s and Moholy’s theories were premised. Tellingly, Moholy’s film ends with a few final shots of the Penguin Pond at night. Under the glare of electric floodlights, the Pond’s central ramps, now dappled by spray from the sprinkler below, bear an uncanny resemblance to city sidewalks on a cold rainy night, with a lone Humboldt penguin standing impassively at the bottom of the frame emphasizing the image’s associative power (figure 2). Moholy’s film might be accused here of succumbing to an anthropomorphic impulse, but this is far from the comedic tropes of Dominican monks and chorus girls depicted in the newsreels. For a New York audience, about to leave the warmth of MoMA for the wintry streets of Manhattan, this final image might have offered a kernel of progressive cross-species empathy.

Filmography

British Pathé: “Points on Penguins,” 11 November 1935.
László Moholy-Nagy, Marseille Vieux Port, 1929.
László Moholy-Nagy, Berlin Still-life, 1931.
László Moholy-Nagy, The New Architecture and the London Zoo, 1937.

Excerpt from: Richard Hornsey, Lázló Moholy-Nagy at the London Zoo: Animal Enclosures and the Unleashed Camera, published 2016 in: M. Lawrence and K Lury (eds.): The Zoo and Screen Media: Images of Exhibition and Encounter,  Palgrave Macmillan, London 2016, pp. 223–46, reproduced with permission of SNCSC.

●Footnotes
  • 1 Ernestine Carter (née Fantl): With Tongue in Chic, Michael Joseph, London 1974, p. 49.
  • 2 Oliver Botár: “Films by Moholy-Nagy,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 67(3), 2008, pp. 460–2.
  • 3 John Allan: Berthold Lubetkin: Architecture and the Tradition of Progress, Black Dog Publishing Limited, London 2012.
  • 4 Terence A. Senter: “Moholy-Nagy: the Transitional Years,” in: Achim Borchardt-Hume (ed.): Albers and Moholy-Nagy: From the Bauhaus to the New World, Tate, London 2006, pp. 85–91.
  • 5 Allan: Berthold Lubetkin, p. 212.
  • 6 Pyrs Gruffudd: “Biological Cultivation: Lubetkin’s Modernism at London Zoo in the 1930s,” in: Chris Philo and Chris Wilbert (eds.): Animals Spaces, Beastly Places: New Geographies of Animal-Human Relations, Routledge, London 2000, pp. 223–41.
  • 7 Allan: Berthold Lubetkin, p. 142.
  • 8 Cited in ibid., p. 129.
  • 9 Gruffudd: “Biological Cultivation: Lubetkin’s Modernism at London Zoo in the 1930s”; Julian Huxley: Scientific Research and Social Needs, Watts & Co., London 1934.
  • 10 David Ashford: “Gorillas in the House of Light,” The Cambridge Quarterly 40(3), 2011, pp. 201–223; Hadas A. Steiner: “For the Birds,” Grey Room 13, 2003, pp. 5–31.
  • 11 Cited in Allan: Berthold Lubetkin, p. 199.
  • 12 John Berger: “Why Look at Animals?,” in Why Look at Animals?, Penguin, London (1977)/2009, pp. 12–38.
  • 13 Jonathan Burt: “Violent Health and the Moving Image: The London Zoo and Monkey Hill,” in: Mary Henninger-Voss (ed.): Animals in Human History: the Mirror of Nature and Culture, Rochester University Press, Rochester NY 2002, pp. 258–92.
  • 14 “A ‘Blue-water School’ of Penguins: the New ‘Zoo’ Pond,” Illustrated London News, 30 June 1934, p. 1061.
  • 15 “15 O’clock is Feeding Time,” Daily Mirror, 26 May 1934, p. 13.
  • 16 Steiner: “For the Birds”.
  • 17 Cited in Terence A. Senter: “Moholy-Nagy in England: May 1935–July 1937,” unpublished MPhil, University of Nottingham 1975.
  • 18 László Moholy- Nagy: “A New Instrument of Vision,” in: Klemens Gruber and Oliver Botár (eds.): Telehor, Lars Müller, Baden (1932)/2011, pp. 34–6, here p. 35.
  • 19 László Moholy-Nagy: Painting, Photography, Film, Lund Humphries, London (1927)/1969.
  • 20 László Moholy-Nagy: “Constructivism and the Proletariat,” in: Richard Kostelanetz (ed.): Moholy-Nagy: An Anthology, Da Capo, New York (1922)/1970, pp. 185–6.
  • 21 Andrea Nelson: “László Moholy-Nagy and Painting Photography Film: A Guide to Narrative Montage,” History of Photography 30(3), 2006, pp. 258–69; Pepper Stetler: “‘The New Literature’: Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s Painting, Photography, Film,” Grey Area 32, 2008, pp. 88–113.
  • 22 Cited in Senter: “Moholy-Nagy: the Transitional Years,” p. 103.
  • 23 The video can be found on the Britsh Pathé website: https://www.britishpathe.com/video/points-on-penguins
  • 24 See Eleanor M. Hight: Picturing Modernism: Moholy-Nagy and Photography in Weimar Germany, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA., 1995, p. 121.
  • 25 László Moholy-Nagy: “Paths to the Unleashed Colour Camera,” Penrose Annual, 1937, 1937, pp. 25–8.
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