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Dudley Zoo
The Broadway, Dudley, West Midlands, UK
Dudley Zoo
associated engineer
Sir Ove Arup
Stand Consulting Engineers
date  1935 - 18th May 1937
era  Modern  |  category  Building  |  reference  SO947906
photo  © Jaggery and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
More than 1,000 animals from around 200 species live at Dudley Zoo. They were originally housed in a collection of thirteen purpose-built Modernist enclosures, some of which are still in use while others have been restored and re-purposed. The curvilinear buildings showcase the properties of reinforced concrete and demonstrate architect Berthold Lubetkin’s vision for employing Modernism to improve society.
Dudley Zoo covers some 12 hectares of the grounds of the 11th century Dudley Castle, in the area of the West Midlands known as the Black Country — owing to its high levels of air pollution from burning coal during the Industrial Revolution. The castle sits on a limestone outcrop with the land sloping steeply around it.
The idea of a zoo came to fruition in 1935, when the Dudley Zoological Society was founded by William Humble Eric Ward (1894-1969, 3rd Earl of Dudley), the castle’s owner, with Ernest Marsh, a director of local meat producers Marsh & Baxter, and Captain William Frank Cooper (1874-1952), a director of Oxfordshire preserve manufacturers Frank Cooper’s. Cooper was one of the owners of Oxford Zoo (in operation 1931-6), which supplied many of its animals to Dudley. Others were brought from zoos in Hamburg, London and Bedfordshire.
The Modernist designs of architect Berthold Romanovich Lubetkin (1901-90) and the Tecton Group, founded in 1932, had been much admired at London Zoo’s gorilla house (constructed 1932-4) and Penguin Pool (1935). They were commissioned to design Dudley Zoo’s buildings, with structural engineering by Ove Arup (1895-1988). The project architect was Francis Skinner and contractor J.L. Kier & Co Ltd.
The site had the advantage of a railway station and a tram terminus nearby. For the zoo, existing castle roads — laid as carriage drives and paths in the 19th century — were used where possible. Though the typography constrained the positioning of the buildings, the use of two-storey enclosures enabled visitors to move from one level to another without obvious uphill climbs.
The hardness of the bedrock made construction a challenge, as blasting was not an option. In addition, extensive series of unmapped caverns, associated with 17th and 18th century limestone workings, undermine the site. As excavation was difficult, existing drainage arrangements were used as much as possible. Also, about half the site remains in shadow for most of the day.
The thirteen Tecton-designed zoo installations are of reinforced concrete, and characterised by clean lines and freeform curves. They are dotted over the hilltop in rings around the castle. At the top are the sea lion enclosure, the Castle Restaurant, the elephant house and the reptile house. On the slopes are the penguin pool, the polar bear and big cat complex and the Moat Cafe. At the base of the hill are the tropical bird house, the brown bear ravine, two kiosks, the Station Cafe and the entrance plaza.
Despite the nature of the site and the impossibility of grouping types of animals together, a cohesive set of buildings wanted, with each indicating its function. The castle is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and the structures near it had to be as low-rise and inconspicuous as possible. The sea lion pools, the tropical bird house and the restaurant include areas of rubble stone walling to blend with the fabric of the castle.
The sea lion enclosure is located in the castle moat and included two teardrop-shaped pools, ramps, sleeping areas and two cantilevered viewing balconies. The pointed ends of the pools connect under a central bridge leading to the castle courtyard. The balconies have since been dismantled.
The single-storey restaurant, also known as the Queen Mary Suite, is triangular in plan with an elongated glazed front (south) range overlooking the sea lion pools. The central entrance features a barrel vault that runs through to the rear of the building.
The elephant house is also single storey. It originally held elephants, camels and Shetland ponies, and is nestled into the slope between two terraces. The front elevation is glazed, and the roof that doubles as a viewing platform, accessed by flanking stairways. A clerestory allows light into the rear of the enclosure and rises through the terrace above. In 2003, the enclosed ceased to house elephants.
The reptile house, south of the castle, is bounded by a low wall topped by wide coping. The wall retains its original colour and finish, resulting from construction with corrugated iron shuttering. Once used as a vivarium, it is now home to a group of meerkats.
The kidney-shaped penguin pool (demolished) was constructed at road level but the sloping site enabled a long observation window to be set into the opposite side of the building, enabling visitors to watch the birds swimming underwater. The poolside slabs and floating islands were covered with a rubber-cement composition for easy cleaning.
An existing ravine, formed by limestone quarrying south west of the castle, was deepened to house polar bears, tigers and lions, providing dramatic contrast between the geometric new structures and the rugged landscape. Viewing platforms are located on several levels, cantilevered over columns with flared 'mushroom' capitals. Polar bears occupied a central pit with a 2.4m deep pool, surrounded by an elevated terrace bridging the ravine. Lions and tigers had separate enclosures on either side. The complex is no longer suitable for keeping polar bears, and now houses bears and tigers. All parapets have been raised by the addition of steel post and wire fencing.
To lessen its impact on the nearby castle, the large Moat Cafe was made as light and transparent as possible. In plan, the roof follows serpentine curves and is carried on 229mm diameter columns and beams flush with the roof slab. The rear and sides of the split-level building were glazed and the front left open. Later, the front elevation was closed with glazing panels and the building is now used as the zoo's Discovery Centre.
The tropical bird house lies well north of the castle. It is a two storey circular building with a cantilevered balcony. The concrete roof, an inverted flat cone carried on plain columns, is structurally separate from the outer wall — they are connected only by the unbroken circle of a double-glazed roof light. The lower level originally housed an electricity transformer station and heating plant. The building is now a discovery centre.
The brown bear enclosure was constructed in a natural ravine north east of the castle. During foundation excavations, a cavern some 15m deep was discovered. The design was amended to incorporate the cavern as part of the bears' habitat. The finished structure had viewing terraces on two levels above the animals, one of which was 3m wide and supported at 6.1m intervals on central columns with mushroom capitals. By modern standards, the enclosure is not suitable for bears and has been disused since the 1980s, subsequently falling into disrepair.
The two refreshment kiosks to the south and east of the bear ravine are identical — elliptical in plan, with a lower front wall to provide a servery. The overhanging canopy roof is carried above the walls on steel columns. Now disused owing to modern environmental health regulations.
The Station Cafe lies at the base of the hil, and is a split-level five-bay building with four large entrances and open timber lattice walls between. Its oversailing roof slab is carried on a grid of 229mm diameter columns and integral support beams. The roof had five inset circular lights, three of which extended into the building to form aviaries. Later used as the Safari Building, the two surviving timber lattices have been glazed and the other walls panelled. The gap between roof slab and walls has been infilled with brickwork. Two of the four entrances have been blocked and modern doors fitted in the remaining pair.
The main entrance plaza is set back from the north side of Castle Hill, west of the Station Cafe. Eight turnstiles are spaced between five booths of concrete faced with brick. The three centre bays carry the letters Z O O. The overlapping booth canopies are shallow S-shapes carried on round steel columns.
On 18th May 1937, Dudley Zoo opened to the public. It caused a sensation — the first zoo in Europe without bars or cages to imprison the animals. Some 30 million people have since visited it.
In 1958, a chairlift with 41 chairs was installed, running between the zoo entrance and the castle. Opening on 11th May that year, it was the first passenger-carrying aerial ropeway in England and carried more than 154,000 passengers in the first six months.
In August 1970, all of the zoo’s Lubetkin and Tecton buildings, except the reptiliary, were Grade II listed. Despite this, in 1979, the penguin pool and enclosure were demolished. The salt water in the pool had reacted with the steel reinforcement in the building’s concrete, causing extensive corrosion. In November 1986, the reptiliary was Grade II listed.
Though innovative at the time, the design of the Tecton buildings no longer meets the ideals of modern zoo-keeping, where naturalistic habitats are now preferable. Welfare concerns have included the buildings being too small, too dark or not well enough heated, and the viewing terraces above the enclosures making the animals nervous. These das, only the sea lion pool is used for its original purpose.
The chairlift closed in 2002. The tropical bird house was incorporated into an enclosure and paddocks for Asiatic lions, which opened in April 2009.
In October 2009, the World Monuments Fund placed the zoo's architecture on its 2010 watch list, classed as an endangered heritage site, alongside the Taj Mahal in India and Machu Picchu in Peru. Over the years, the Tectons have deteriorated, with rusting of the reinforcement and spalling of the concrete surfaces the most common problems. A comprehensive renovation project was planned for some of the structures showing greatest deterioration.
In December 2011, six of the twelve surviving were uprated from Grade II to Grade II* listed. The zoo probably has Britain’s most complete set of buildings from the Modernist period. In May 2012, a new penguin enclosure opened to mark the zoo’s 75th anniversary. The chairlift re-opened on 24th August 2012, after 12 weeks of restoration.
In 2012-6, renovation of the bear ravine, one of the kiosks, the entrance plaza and the Safari Building (former Station Cafe) was undertaken by architect BPN, with Stand Consulting Engineers. In-house labour was used rather than outside contractors. The zoo contributed £300,000 to the project and also received a grant of £1.15m from the Heritage Lottery Fund for work on the Tectons and full reinstatement of the chairlift, plus a European Regional Development Fund grant for further works.
As much as possible of the original fabric of the four structures under repair has been conserved, and the project benefited from close collaboration between the zoo, the architect, the engineers, English Heritage (now Historic England) and the Twentieth Century Society. Ongoing testing and monitoring will compare the performance of the different repair methods being trialled.
The four structures were all in poor condition. Degradation had resulted mainly from insufficient thickness of concrete cover to the reinforcement, which was found in most of the concrete elements, rather than the depth of carbonation (about 40mm). Concrete and mortar made with traditional materials were used for repairing the damaged surfaces. In some places, such as a cantilevered viewing platform, carbon fibre strips or sheets were added to increase the structural bending and shear capacities. Formwork was shaped to fit the original curves and new tools made to replicate the grooved surface finish, which was reinstated by hand. The original colour schemes, featuring sky blue, grey and terracotta, were also recreated.
Work began with the entrance plaza and the Safari Building, which now holds the shop. Both were returned to their original forms with the existing elements being refurbished wherever possible. The repaired kiosk is used as an interpretive point. The new shop opened in April 2014.
By July 2014, repair work was underway at the brown bear ravine. The original underground dens — complete with the names of the bears who lived in them — have been retained in situ as an exhibit, though they are no longer suitable for animal occupation. In October 2015, the ravine structure was removed from Historic England’s register of buildings 'at risk'. Completed in 2016, it is intended to be a new home for primates.
Architect: Berthold Lubetkin
Architect: Tecton
Architect: Francis Skinner
Architect (2012-16): BNP (Bryant Priest Newman)
Resident engineer: Michael Sheldrake
Contractor: JL Kier & Co Ltd
Research: ECPK

Dudley Zoo