Former Tropical Bird House, designed by Lubetkin and Tecton, and built 1935-7.
Reason for Listing
The tropical bird house at Dudley Zoo, is designated at Grade II*, for the following principal reasons:
* Architectural interest: the building is one of twelve surviving structures at the zoo designed by Lubetkin and Tecton, with engineering by Ove Arup, built in 1935-7;
* Design interest: the building if of more than special interest for it's form, with its deeply cantilevered balcony over an animal paddock, surmounted by a drum enclosure with a separate glass roof, demonstrating significant architectural and engineering sophistication;
* Group value: the enclosure demonstrates a strong group identity through the sharing of form, scale, materials and finishing with the other purpose-built structures created by Tecton for the zoo;
* Setting: the enclosure is designed to sit on the steeply-terraced slopes below the ruins of the medieval Dudley Castle, in whose grounds the zoo was created.
The idea of a zoo at Dudley Castle was first mooted in 1935. The site belonged to the Earl Dudley and he, together with Ernest Marsh (director of Marsh and Baxter, a meat producer) and Captain Frank Cooper (owner of the marmalade factory) combined to form the initial board of directors of The Dudley Zoological Society. Captain Cooper owned Oxford Zoo and wanted to sell his own collection of animals. They appointed Dr Geoffrey Vevers, the Superintendent at London Zoo as their Advisor.
Vevers had previously worked with Berthold Lubetkin and Tecton at London Zoo, where their Gorilla House and Penguin Pool were completed in 1934 and 1935 respectively. It was through him that the practice received the commission. In addition, the contractors were J L Kier, for whom the engineer Ove Arup was working at the time, prior to establishing his own company. The resident site engineer was Michael Sheldrake and the job architect was Francis Skinner. The budget for the work was roughly £40,000 and there was pressure from the clients to open the new zoo for the summer season of 1937 and, in Lubetkin’s words, ‘to get as many goods as possible in the shop window’. In the event, the zoo opened on May 6, 1937 and a crowd of c.250,000 arrived, of whom only 50,000 could be admitted.
The thirteen buildings designed by Berthold Lubetkin and Tecton included a restaurant and two cafés. As the Architectural Review of November 1937 made clear, the problem for the designers was as much one of circulation and town planning as of building. A solution was found by free planning, which utilised the natural features of the castle site. At the centre was Dudley Castle, a Scheduled Monument in a state of semi-ruin, dating from the C11 to the C16 and built around a central courtyard.
The site for the zoo was the surrounding grounds of about thirty acres, which slope steeply down from the castle on all sides, forming terraces at different levels. The site had the advantage that the railway station and tram terminus were both within a few yards of the entrance, but several disadvantages had to be overcome; these included the steepness and shape of the site, which reduced the number of possible positions for buildings and enclosures and made construction work difficult. Transport problems to most parts of the castle grounds meant that the existing roads and paths, laid out as carriage drives and pathways in the C19, were used wherever possible, and construction work could not take place in wet weather. Moreover, extensive caverns associated with limestone workings from the C17 and C18 undermined large parts of the site and no accurate maps existed to guide the architects in choosing safe building locations. During construction of the foundations, an unexpected cave, at least fifty feet in depth, opened up beneath the bear pit.
Almost as difficult was the fact that the limestone, which formed the castle mound, was particularly hard, and although this created good foundations, blasting and clearing substantial areas of the site was considered unfeasible. Another consideration was that the castle was scheduled, and the Ancient Monuments department of the Office of Works had a degree of control over development of the castle grounds. Their position was that the educational value of the castle would be increased by the construction of the zoo buildings. Permission was allowed for buildings on the approach slopes to the castle, but those structures which were near to the castle, namely the restaurant, one café and the Elephant House and Sea Lion enclosure, had to be kept as low and inconspicuous as possible. It was also requested that the Sea Lion pools and the Restaurant should incorporate some areas of rubble stone walling to blend with the castle. Further considerations were drainage, and the fact that half of the site was in shadow for most of the day.
A planned route, grouping types of animals together, was not possible. Instead, the buildings had to signal the fact that they were related and the product of one overall scheme through congruities in their design; and functional buildings, such as cafés, lavatories and exits, had to indicate their purpose clearly. The sloping site allowed the architects to create designs which often incorporated two levels, and allowed the public access to viewing platforms above the animal enclosures.
Lubetkin described his role in the creation of the zoo buildings as ‘designing architectural settings for the animals in such a way as to present them dramatically to the public, in an atmosphere comparable to that of a circus’. This attitude was not universally popular at the time and has since been superseded by a desire to give animals more privacy and, where possible, a naturalistic setting. Several of the buildings have changed their function since the zoo opened; these include the Reptile Enclosure, the Polar Bear enclosure, the Tropical Bird House, the Bear Ravine and the Elephant House, all of which now house different animals. Both of the cafés, which were originally open-air, have been adapted to be fully enclosed; and the kiosks which formerly sold cigarettes and chocolate are no longer used for this purpose as they do not meet modern environmental health standards for the sale of food. The nature of the construction of the buildings, in reinforced concrete, has caused problems with rusting and spalling of the concrete surfaces, and repairs have been necessary, including patch repairs and a covering of colour wash. Only one major building has been demolished: the Penguin Pool, which was smaller than that at London Zoo, was filled with salt water which reacted with the reinforcement rods embedded in the concrete body and caused rapid and extensive corrosion. The building was demolished in 1979.
Dudley Zoo continues in use as a visitor attraction, and participates in numerous captive breeding programmes to contribute to the conservation of species under threat.
The Tropical Bird House was sited in perhaps the most commanding position of all the Tecton buildings, set on a steeply-sloping, east-facing site, with views out over the wooded slopes to the north and east of the castle. It was built to house semi-tropical birds, such as parrots, and incorporated a heated indoor house, and an external balcony, which allowed some of the birds to be displayed outside during summer. Unlike the animal houses closer to the castle, the Tropical Bird House was in a less sensitive site, and this enabled the architects to create a bolder design, without significant height restrictions. The two-storey building thus created was something in the manner of a belvedere, its drum form and hilltop location recalling the use of such towers in C18 English landscape design.
The steep site, with the ground falling away sharply to the east, served to link two levels within the terraced grounds, in common with the other large animal houses designed by Tecton for the site. Here, the upper level, which was level with the expected approach from the south, gave access into the tropical bird house, and to the surrounding balcony, which was cantilevered out over the paddock below, allowing not only a view of the bison in the enclosure, but over a wide area of the zoo grounds. A flight of steps gave access to the area immediately below the house, where the cantilevered balcony doubled as a shelter for visitors in wet weather. The central drum beneath the main house provided a discreet location for an electricity transformer station. The design of the building was impressive for its engineering and spatial qualities. The reinforced concrete roof, in the form of a partial inverted flat cone carried on plain columns, was structurally separate from the circular external wall, and the two were united only by the double-glazed roof light which bridged the gap in an unbroken circle. Historic photographs show the interior flooded with light; a circle of wire mesh under the central roof cone created a large aviary; and built around the exterior wall, large and small, white-tiled, mesh covered enclosures lining the entire structure from one side of the entrance to the other.
The tropical bird house is no longer used for its original purpose; the enclosures in the interior have been removed, and the building now functions as a hands-on discovery centre for children. The paddock beneath now houses Asiatic lions.
PLAN: The plan is based on two concentric circles, the smaller describing the external wall of the former bird house, the larger the balcony which surrounds it. An apron for the entrance extends to the west, flanked by flights of steps giving access to the lower level.
MATERIALS: Reinforced concrete, with extensive glazing to the roof.
EXTERIOR: The circular building is of two storeys, the higher at ground level when approached from the south, and consists of an upper drum-shaped structure, finished with a moulded grid pattern, with a surrounding cantilevered balcony which has three shelters created from floating slab roofs, under which is a smaller drum. The upper drum, which formerly housed semi-tropical birds, and the balcony, is accessed via a bridge, under a roof slab with a deeply convex front edge, extending to either side as a beam. The double entrance doorway is set back slightly within the entrance. The reinforced concrete roof, in the form of a partial inverted flat cone carried on plain columns, is structurally separate from the circular external wall, and the two are united only by the double-glazed roof light which bridges the gap in an unbroken circle.
The balcony has the common parapet used for all the larger buildings designed by Tecton for the site; the low wall has its coping raised on elliptical-section steel struts, giving adults a raised surface on which to lean, and allowing children to view the animals without being lifted up.
Under the balcony, a smaller central drum below the bird house formerly housed the transformer station and heating plant. The whole sits on a circular platform with an external wall faced in rubble stone.
INTERIOR: The interior is no longer used for the keeping of birds. The enclosures which lined the circular wall of the building have been removed, as has the wire-mesh aviary which formed the central enclosure, though the structural elements which supported them, and hid the heating pipes from view, are still in situ.
Source: English Heritage
Listed building text is © Crown Copyright. Reproduced under licence.