hidden europe 31

Of apes and men: the Dudley story

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: The curves which were so much a feature of Berthold Lubetkin’s architecture are very evident in his design for the entrance to Dudley Zoo (photo courtesy of DZG).

Summary

Many people visit zoos to see apes, wild cats and okapi. But some visitors to Dudley Zoo in the English Midlands are drawn by quite another reason. Dudley Zoo boasts a fine collection of Constructivist buildings designed by Berthold Lubetkin and his Tecton group of architects. The Lubetkin legacy in Dudley and elsewhere in England deserves to be far better known and much more valued.

In 1867, a learned English economist called William Stanley Jevons presented an apocalyptic view of how the landscape of that part of the English Midlands known as the Black Country might look one hundred years hence. Jevons suggested that the town of Dudley would be well nigh deserted, its streets grass-grown, with the last inhabitant sitting on the ruins of the old castle and surveying a barren post-industrial wasteland abandoned by humans and left to animals.

Of course Jevons never had the chance to return to Dudley Castle in 1967 to see if there was a grain of truth in his awful prediction. The economist died in 1882. Had Jevons’ ghost stood on the great mound of Dudley Castle in 1967, he might well have seen all manner of wild animals. He could certainly have glimpsed apes and great cats, with luck even some bears or penguins. For in 1937, Dudley Zoo opened its doors to the public, from the outset branding itself as “the most modern in Europe, a zoo without bars.” And, as our phantom observer surveyed the terrain around the castle ruins, he would have seen a remarkable collection of zoo buildings. In 1967, the buildings of Dudley Zoo would have seemed as uncompromisingly modern as on the day they were built. This is the story of how an émigré from the Soviet Union called Berthold Lubetkin and his Tecton group of radical architects came to Dudley and gave this rather unlikely Black Country town a remarkable feast of world class architecture.

Berthold Lubetkin was born in Tbilisi in 1901 at a time when Georgia was part of the Russian Empire. Lubetkin came from a Russian Jewish family that travelled prodigiously and even as a child he visited several countries in western and central Europe. He studied in Moscow and St Petersburg and witnessed the Russian Revolution first hand.

The beginnings

By the time Lubetkin qualified as an architect, he was a committed socialist. His early work shows the influence of the Russian Constructivist school. Take a dash of Le Corbusier, add a dose of Nikolai Ladovsky and you enter the avant-garde world in which Soviet architects of the twenties excelled as they playfully managed space.

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