Part of the Penguin Pool at London Zoological Gardens. Credits: FeinFinch

Constructing New Territories: Polish-UK Utopias

Constructing New Territories: Polish-UK Utopias
Lecture for JEMP:Mechanical 2019 by Dr. Charlotte de Mille 


“Architecture can be a potent weapon, a committed driving force on the side of enlightenment, aiming however indirectly at the transformation of our present make-believe society, where images outstrip reality” – Berthold Lubetkin


Arriving from the Soviet Union in 1931, Moscow and Warsaw trained architect Berthold Lubetkin was commissioned by Solly Zuckerman, Head of the Zoological Society, and Dr Geoffrey Vevers, Fabian Zoo Super-Intendent, to design new houses for recently acquired gorillas and penguins. Lubetkin consulted the biologist Julian Huxley to ensure that the enclosure design would be best suited to the penguins’ needs. His design was based on behaviourist psychology popular in the 1930s, and particularly prevalent in the intellectual circles around the Bauhaus and international constructivism. Having studied the habits of penguins, he created a penguin enclosure and a pool that provided an interesting environment for the animals, a multiplicity of viewing angles for the spectator, and a Modernist building of clarity and style. He viewed the opportunity to design a habitat for the penguins as a chance to coax them to display their most distinctive characteristics, which include waddling, sliding, graceful swimming, and nesting.


In the modernist/functionalist aspirations to make the design fit the occupants, all of these things are showcased through the environment he designed. To begin with, spectators can easily see the penguins waddling on the concrete staircases that lead up to the ramps. From there, the penguins would slide on their stomachs down the ramps and into the pools. More startling perhaps, the penguin house was species-specific. In the words of restoration architect John Allen, the house was “originally designed for an Antarctic species of penguins who like to huddle together. The zoo switched to South American Humbolts, who prefer to burrow, rendering the original nesting boxes unsuitable.”


The Penguin Pool is a famous and eccentric iteration of the transfer of internationalist ideologies to London for a few brief years, 1935-39. Opening with this case-study of London Zoo’s functionalist and socialist-inspired intentions, I highlight the exploration of utopian ideologies of (social-)spaces in Britain that were deeply indebted to theories and practices developed from 1914, primarily by Soviet artists and architects working under the unique circumstances of revolution. In the UK’s context, these were invigorated by the remarkable group of émigrés arriving in Hampstead, from Lubetkin in 1931, to Gropius, Marcel Breuer and Eric Mendholson in 1934, Maholy-Nagy in 1935, Naum Gabo in 1936, Herbert Bayer briefly in 1937, and Mondrian in 1938.



Grade 1 listed Penguin pool, London Zoo, England. Now a water feature and not used to keep Penguins. Credits: Chris Sampson


Gropius’ first London lecture was adamant that “art and architecture which fail to serve for the betterment of our environment are socially destructive by aggravating instead of healing the ills of an inequitable social system.”[1] Peder Anker’s illuminating  From Bauhaus to Ecohouse considers how Bauhaus’ design was intended to shape future generations to live in harmony with nature, as part of which Moholy-Nagy’s  London writings amounted to a  “re-launching of the Bauhaus as an ecologically inspired program of design”, using “nature as a constructional model.”[2] In 1936, Alfred Barr commissioned a 15-minute silent film by Moholy-Nagy. New Architecture of London Zoo strived to “document the spatial relationships within a building.”[3] And since Lubetkin said “I protested against such a naturalistic approach”, Moholy-Nagy seemed to have incorporated his use of light and shadows typical of earlier work. The film “document[ed] different biological experiences of space that humans share with animals.”


In this light, London Zoo’s commissions “used Bauhaus design to promote a socialist-inspired view of the connection between animal and human nature, an evolutionary development from the animal house to the Bauhaus, which offered health, welfare, and peaceful relationships between humans and the natural world.”[4]The Secretary of the Zoological Society, Chalmers Mitchell, saw evolutionary theory as working towards a “cooperative model of social behaviour” for animals and humans. Thus, a popular ZOO pamphlet from 1936 described its architecture as a model for an “ultra-modern human dwelling-house.”[5] These architectural experiments could be transferred from the Gorilla House to human habitation.


Wells Coates’ Lawn Road Flats from 1933, also known as the Isokon Building, are still standing in Hampstead and are well worth a visit. The flats included a common room – the Isobar Club – with furniture by Breuer, laundry, garage, and cooking services. Gropius called them “an exciting housing laboratory, both socially and technically” – the aspiration was to offer communal spaces that could facilitate intellectual debates. Since many of the members of the Modern Architectural Research Group (MARS), such as Moholy-Nagy, Gropius, and Maxwell Fry (Gropius’ collaborator), lived in the building, and with Serge Chermayeff, Lubetkin, Danish engineer Ove Arup, Nicholson, Hepworth, Moore and H.G. Wells round the corner, it could scarcely have been anything else. Agatha Christie was another occupant. As Wells Coates wrote for the Architectural Association Journal in 1938:


“Our society is above all determined to be free… As architects of a new order, we should be concerned with an architectural solution to social and economic problems.”[6] Coates though was reaffirming a view already prevalent from JM Richards: “Until we have absorbed the lessons of objectivity, impersonality, neutrality, the lessons of the mechanical realm, we cannot go further in our development towards the more richly organic, the more profoundly human.”[7]


So, what is it that distinguishes Constructivism in the UK? The examples above mix ideology freely: functionalism, vitalism, utopian aspiration. I’m going to quote 3 statements from contributors to the book Circle, which appeared as the voice of Constructivism in Britain, in 1937, alongside the exhibition Constructive Art at the London Gallery in July that year:


“The present constructive movement is a living force.”Ben Nicholson


The abstract artist aims “to construct a plastic object appealing immediately to the senses” – Herbert Read in The Faculty of Abstraction


“We have a definite, creative desire to take part in the construction of this epoch. The aim of our time consists in creating a harmonious human being, and we strive in our works to educate the spirit in this direction.” – Naum Gabo


Lastly, the editorial by Nicholson, Gabo, and architect Leslie Martin:


“In light of the Constructive idea, the creative mind of Man has the last and decisive word in the definite construction of the whole of our culture.” [8]


Constructivism is complex and multifarious – utopian in both metaphysical and socialist endeavour, but also inherently practical in exploring technological and mechanical advances in and for the industry. The UK was a place where the investigation of the 4th Dimension (the more metaphysical strand) began in the Soviet Union by Malevich and Gabo c. 1914 were able to flourish. This is particularly important after the change of direction in the Soviet Union from 1920-21, which prioritised industry and the ‘artist engineer’.


The metaphysical utopian vision underpins Nicholson’s work. He was adamant that modern art shared with science the search for the “realisation and understanding of infinity.” In a statement for his group Unit Onein 1934, Nicholson wrote that “not only the laws of nature, but space and time, and the material universe itself, are constructions of the human mind… to an altogether unexpected extent the universe we live in is the creation of our minds.” Here Nicholson combined his version of Constructivism with the psychology and perceptual relativism of Surrealism. But that was also connected to a broader cultural context that saw the popularisation of Einstein’s theory of relativity during the 1920s through the proven experiments of the Cambridge physicist Arthur Eddington. Immediately, following the first world war, and again in 1923, Eddington travelled to South Africa and Brazil to measure the alteration of the position of stars during a solar eclipse. The proof that they moved, if fractionally, was proof that Einstein’s theory of bent light was true. It is hard to fathom the significance of this discovery (as it turns out it was forged as Eddington encountered fog), and hard too, not to read something of the excitement surrounding this into works produced in the UK under Constructivism. As Gabo wrote for The Listener in 1936:


“The main and only theme of our works is our inner impulses. We follow the vocation of these impulses to manifest the harmony and rhythm of that very current which links human existence to the universe and which is the source and nourishment of all human creations.”

This view has particular poignancy in relation to the constrictions of art production in the Soviet Union by this date. Gabo’s interest in the metaphysical and the abstract are directly counter to Soviet Socialist Realism.


Gabo translated these ideas into his constructivist sculptures. Made of the newly invented Perspex, these works sculpt space out of transparent constructed elements rather than through modelling or carving. Gabo was adamant that “space and time are the only forms on which life is built and hence art must be constructed.” For him, forms were “means and material, and it is in their totality and mutual rhythmic connection that the value and vital sense of these forms are to be found.” [9] “The rhythm of the lines, the spatial order of the shapes and imaginary volumes, the tension of the latent motion hidden in their visual equilibrium are the main substance of these plastics… They could be considered as absolute architecture, being free from the usual function of a building but consisting of elements that anticipate the spatial relations of the architecture of the future. On the other hand, it could be absolute sculpture.”[10]


Gabo’s consideration of the architectonics of ‘absolute sculpture’ compares interestingly with Kobro and Strzemiński’s Unism. As artist Deborah Vogel once wrote, the “real content [of art] has become a certain form of balance… movements, weights, rhythms and tensions… In Unism, art is a response to the painful need for balance and boundary in space.… The place is not for sticking the foreign body of painted forms or mass, but it is itself, as it were, the building material… The artwork thus becomes as if a continuation of space itself, only formulated, composed, and shaped in a certain way.” [11]  In Kobro and Strzemiński’s book Composing Space: calculating space-time rhythms, the Unist artist follows “the organic law of sculpture… to unite with space, to be intimately related to space, to meld and absorb space… the basic essence and primal law of sculpture are to recognise and unite with the endlessness of space…”.[12]


This understanding of space continued into Strzemiński’s definition of painting. In Unism in Painting (1928) he wrote: “Pure form: the surface of the painting is homogenous, the tension of the form must be shared equally… Image is not the place of form, it is itself the form, inseparably space and object. The identity of the pictorial field and the image-object constitutes the principle of Unism.”


Simultaneously, however, just as for Gabo and the architects around Lubetkin’s TECTON, in the Unist principle, everyday life should be shaped by art – “art is bound up with the scientific organisation of work and rest, as well as being based on contemporary technology, psychophysiology, and biomechanics.”[13] Luba’s essay for the recent exhibition in Łódź, SuperOrganism, emphasises how the ‘Organicity’ of Strzemiński’s ideology shapes man’s life and environment, pointing out to how often Strzemiński uses organic metaphor, strangely combining the mechanical with the biological. At the same time, in Modern Art in Poland (1934), Strzemiński claimed “Art ought to become a formal organization of the course of everyday events.”[14]



Katarzyna Kobro, Spatial Composition 4, 1929 © Ewa Sapka-Pawliczak & Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź


Taking his cue from Gabo, Gropius et. al, the painter Ben Nicholson came to the same conclusion. Of his White Reliefs, Nicholson said that their solidity, lightness and simplicity should suggest the possibility of a new social harmony. At the same time, it has been argued that the White Reliefs can be read as private images of domesticity: achieved by regarding them as aerial perspectives of tabletops, complete with place settings, mugs, and plates. These works had a mixed reception in Britain in the late 1930s, for instance, the critic Geoffrey Grigson, despite being associated with Circle, cautioned Nicholson that his White Reliefs were ‘too much art itself, floating and disinfected.’ Nicholson’s interest is in the relation of forms and planes, which play in dynamic relation according to the light that falls on them. It is worth remembering that in the clinical lighting of an exhibition setting, this is almost impossible for us to experience now. They are subtle works, that in their simplicity force us to focus on these elements.


Comparably, the same can be said of the sculpture of Barbara Hepworth, Nicholson’s second wife. Works such as Three forms, carved in Serravezza marble in 1935, and Oval Sculpture 2, carved in plaster, are also explorations of space, material, and the relations between forms. The practice of piercing work, illustrated in Oval Sculpture, shifts the relation between interior and exterior, where the complexity of shapes conveys a dynamism of presence and absence. As Gabo wrote of Hepworth’s and his own work, “Our works are not to be understood, they are to be felt”[15], supporting the claim with gestalt psychology which understood that “elemental shapes that are universal and available to our general human psychology. In general, there cannot be different opinions as to the psychological effect on a man of a circle or a square or a straight line.”[16]


As Jacob Wamberg wrote, “functionalism [whether Constructivist, Bauhaus or de Stijl aims at] bridges utilitarian function, social interaction, and mental well-being.”[17] The point resonates with my opening case study about the Penguin Pool. It’s far from clear what if anything the British artists knew of Kobro and Strzemiński’s blend of Unist Constructivism, but Strzemiński & Stażewski’s contribution to New York’s 1927 Machine Age Exposition could potentially be a further conduit to ideas transferred from Europe. Lubetkin was not a vitalist like Moholy-Nagy but shared the sense that “forms of nature ought to be the models for functionalist design”: he may have called his zoo architecture ‘geometric’ as opposed to ‘naturalistic’, but underlying the formalist drama of his designs was nevertheless an understanding of its benefits to public health – both human and animal. The Times praised the pool for being “hygienic…  giv[ing] the birds what they require”;[18] meanwhile it was part of the Gorilla House brief that the interior maintained a constant heat (unlike most human homes in 1932), and separation be maintained to prevent the transfer of human germs to the gorillas. Bizarrely Tecton was known for public health work in zoological circles not so much from Finsbury Health Centre, but from its connection to patenting a recipe for yogurt.


So, to return to my opening case study, where does this leave the Penguin Pool and British Constructivism today? Lubetkin had used the commissions to explore the creative potential of a new material – reinforced concrete – which he collaborated on with the engineer Ove Arup. It is the technological advance of steel reinforcements that allowed the extremely thin bridges to be cast: a method that opened up endless possibilities for complex shapes to be made strongly. Yet despite its Grade 1 listed status, in 1970, Lubetkin claimed that “the philosophical aims and orderly character of those designs are in a way diametrically opposed to the intellectual climate in which we live”, and in 2016, his daughter notoriously suggested the pool should be blasted to smithereens.


The pool has been empty since 2004, since penguins contracted ‘bumblefoot’, a bacterial infection from walking on concrete contracted after the restoration – the original floor surface was rubber. Architect John Allan recalled: “In the restoration project, we were required to apply a layer of quartz granules to the ramp surfaces for the benefit of the keepers but to the discomfort of the penguins.” In a zealous climate for human health and safety, the ‘hygienic’, yet behaviourist design suffered: far from taking these animal houses as models for ‘ultra-modern human habitation’, they instead were modified to suit the requirements of the urban zookeeper.


In 1936, at London’s Mayor Gallery, Nicholson and his Circle colleagues organised the Abstract-Concrete Exhibition. In many ways this is a different story to the exodus of Constructivism out of Europe, however, it is emblematic of the strengths and weaknesses of the UK art scene Gabo and others arrived in. On the one hand, it was a forward-thinking exhibition that remarkably travelled to other regions. On the other, it was a slightly jumbled collection of works that we would categorise as Neo-Plastic, Surrealist (the Arp & Calder sculptures), works from Abstraction-Création in France, in which case Nicholson’s work could be categorised in any of these areas. Constructivism in the UK though was not a watered-down version of the European movement, but rather a context in which the abstract, spiritualist ideas could flourish.



1 Pedar Anker, From Bauhaus to Ecohouse, Louisiana Sate University Press, 2010, 17

2 Anker, ibid, 14; Moholy-Nagy 1929, published in translation as The New Vision (1938), reprinted New York: Dover, 2005

3 Anker, ibid, 18

4 Ibid, 19

5 Ibid, 22

6  W. Coates, “The Conditions of an Architecture for Today”, Architecture Association Journal, April 1938, 447-57

7 J.M. Richards, “ Towards a rational aesthetic”, Architectural Review, December 1935, 211-18

8 Leslie Martin, in Jeremy Lewison, ed., Circle: Constructive Art in Britain 1934-40, Cambridge: Kettle’s Yard, 1982, 17

9 Gabo, “Constructive Art”, The Listener, 4 November 1936, 846-88

10 Ibid.

11 Debora Vogel “On Abstract Art”, in Montages: Debora Vogel and the new Legend of the City, ex. cat. Muzeum Sztuki Łódź, 2017, 372

12 Iwoa Luba, “Organicity and the Nature of Cosmos in the Avant-Garde Discourse in Poland” in Super-Organism, The Avant-Garde and the Experience of Nature, ex. cat. Muzeum Sztuki Łódź, 2017, 214

13 W. Strzemiński, 1934, in Luba ibid., 212

14 Mick Finch, “Some Possible Constellations”, P. Polit and J. Suchan eds., Władysław Strzemiński, Readability of Images, Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki Łódź, 2011, 156

15 Gabo, “Constructive Art”, ibid., 260

16  Gabo, ibid., 260

17 Jacob Wamberg, “Entering Second Nature: Technology in Early Modernism and Avant-Garde Art”, in Super-Organism, ibid., 241

18 Anker, 22