Being Tied Up Isn’t Always a Good Thing

The concept of zoos dates back hundreds of years, with different standards and requirements emerging over time. As a result, the typology of zoo architecture has mutated over time to meet these benchmarks, producing a variety of enclosures reflecting the beliefs and standards that they were designed in. Zoo designer Stacy Tarpley has suggested that zoo typology can be sorted into three categories: the zoo as a jail, the zoo as an art gallery and the zoo for education and conservation (Tarpley, 2008). The Victorian, modern and current eras provide examples of these classifications.


Figure One: A depiction of the London Menagerie circa 1820

The Victorian era of zoos housed animals in menageries, and ‘the type of housing provided for any animal was never designed around its requirements,’ (Hancocks 1971) Animals were chained in ornate cages with restricted access to basic needs such as food and water with no enrichment activities. Animals were kept solely for public entertainment, the grandiose architecture of the animals’ enclosures mirroring this, and it was widely accepted by Victorians that ‘nature could be made to serve such trivial human purposes as decoration and entertainment.’ (MacKenzie, 2001)



The Penguin Pool at London Zoo (1934) designed by Lubetkin & Tecton, intertwined modernism with zoo design, creating a gallery of living creatures. A sculptural concrete ramp was the centrepiece of the exhibit, allowing penguins to waddle down much to the public’s delight, The Architects Journal writing, ‘[the ramp] exploits the characteristics of the penguins and reproduces them to the public using the pools theatrical qualities.’ (The Architects Journal, 1934).


Video One: Advertising material for the newly constructed Penguin Pool


Unlike the Victorian menageries, an attempt for animal welfare was included in the design; hidden nest boxes were on the sides of the structure and reinforced concrete was used not only to display its’ structural qualities, but also to keep the pool clean, minimising the spread of disease, (Giddens-Byrne, 2015). Despite this effort, the penguins were removed from the exhibit permanently in 2004 due to the animals contracting bumblefoot from waddling on the concrete. (Block, 2019). This highlights the public’s perception of zoos in the modernist era; that animals were displayed as forms of entertainment, and design aesthetic was valued above the animals’ needs.


Figure Two: the sculptural curves of the ramps in Lubetkin’s Penguin Pool were widely celebrated
Figure Three: the ramps made of reinforced concrete displayed the possibilities of this new material
Figure Four: the Penguin Pool now sits unused due to the lack of consideration for the penguins taken when designing the exhibit








The penguins’ new exhibit at London Zoo, ‘Penguin Beach’ (2011) has a 1200 square metre pool with over 450, 000 litres of water (London Zoo, 2019), a stark contrast to the shallow pool in Lubetkin’s design that was not suitable for diving. The new enclosure also allows the penguins to make burrows, a significant part of their mating ritual (Dockerill, 2015), that Lubetkin’s minimalistic sculpture made impossible. However, the zoo is still prioritising their visitors over the animals’ comfort, with a “large demonstration area turning feeding time into an even bigger spectacle!” (London Zoo, 2019)


Figure Five: the penguins in their new enclosure are now able to dive into the water
Figure Six: a crowd gathers around ‘Penguin Beach’








The designer of the new exhibit recognised that the majority of London Zoo’s revenue comes from the visitors, requiring the penguins to be viewed at all times, however this goes against the animals’ natural instinct to be hidden from view in order to protect themselves from predators. The architect must manage the delicate balance between the two, compromising the animals’ innate nature for the enjoyment of humans, much like the menageries and zoo exhibits of the past century. Despite the so-called interest in animal welfare, are these new conservation-orientated exhibits significantly better than the enclosures that came before?


List of Figures 

Figure One: “The London Menagerie.” 1820.

Figure Two: Lubetkin, Berthold. “The Penguin Pool.” 1935.

Figure Three: Havinden, John. “Penguin Pool: Ramps Under Construction.” 1934.

Figure Four: Cadman, Steve. “Penguin Pool Under Maintenance.” 2004.

Figure Five: Sif, Katrin. “A happy Black Footed Penguin dives in the new London Zoo beach pool.” 2011.

Figure Six: “Penguin Beach.” 2011.



Video One: British Pathé. “Points on Penguins.” 1935.



Giddens-Byrne, Caitlin. “Zoo Architecture: Designed for Humans or Animals?” Published February 20, 2015,

BBC. “The story of British Zoos.” Accessed March 15, 2021,

Block, India. “Berthold Lubetikin’s empty Penguin Pool should be blown “to smithereens” says daughter.” Published January 8, 2019,

Dockerill, Phil. “Why Penguins have Flown from the Penguin Pool.” Accessed March 17, 2021,

Hancocks, David. Animals and Architecture. London: Hugh Evelyn Limited, 1971

MacKenzie, John. The Victorian Vision, Inventing New Britain. London: V&A Publications, 2001

“Penguin Pool, Zoological Gardens: By Lubetkin, Drake and Tecton.” The Architects’ Journal 79, no. 2056 (1934): 856–59.

Shapland, Andrew, & Van Reybrouck, David. “Competing Natural and Historical Heritage: The Penguin Pool at London Zoo.” International Journal of Heritage Studies, no. 14 (2007), 10-29. doi:

Tarpley, Stacy. “A Quick Lesson in Zoo Design.” Accessed March 15, 2021,

ZSL London Zoo. “Penguin Beach.” Published February 17, 2015,