Today the early modernist Penguin Pool (1934) at London Zoo holds a celebrated place in the architecture and art worlds. Designed by Berthold Lubektin and his architecture group Tecton, the building is among the most valued pieces of architecture of that era in Great Britain and has been given Grade 1 listed status on the UK’s heritage register. Star curator Hans Ulrich Obrist was photographed in the Penguin Pool for a book of portraits of London creative personalities (Amirsadeghi and Eisler 2015) – and had the enclosure all to himself, because the penguins were removed in 2004 for animal welfare reasons.
During my video shot in 2015, most visitors ignored the architecture of the Penguin Pool. They fixated on their quest for animals. These zoo spectators accepted the vacant exhibit only after scrutinising the enclosure carefully and waiting for an animal to appear. This could take some time. I observed people around the freestanding oval-shaped building, and the geometrical shapes of the enclosures outlined my vision. Instead of watching zoo animals, I observed zoo visitors.
The documentary The New Architecture and the London Zoo (1936/38) by László Moholy-Nagy presents a coetaneous view of the Penguin Pool. The Museum of Modern Art in New York (MOMA) commissioned the documentary to display different Tecton zoo buildings in the framework of the exhibition ‘Modern Architecture in England’ in 1938. Moholy-Nagy tracks the architectonic shapes with extravagant camera movements. The shapes visibly encourage the artist’s ‘unleashed camera’ (Hornsey 2016). Periodically, the camera relates solely to the building and seemingly disregards the penguins’ and visitors’ bodies in the composition. The zoo animals and human (animals) turn into extras. This ‘architecture-centred’ gaze intrigues me.
In my video the camera also observes the architecture, although this time the camera is immobile. The zoo environment is masked out and, without the surrounding visual context, the Penguin Pool becomes a visual mock-up. Static camera shots compose the pool in my video, in the editing process these shots were overlayed at times. Only water fountains inside the enclosure fabricate movements. These fountains animate the architecture con brio; their function seems purely aesthetic. My video is a loop and this format also references the building in two ways: Firstly, loop is the word pool reversed. Secondly, the ramps inside the enclosure form a visual loop. Therefore, the architecture affected the filmic framing together with the organisation of my video.
Katharina Swoboda, Penguin Pool
video, hd, colour, sound, loop (3:20 min), 2015.
Sound: Sara Pinheiro, Katharina Swoboda
Designed by the Tecton group in 1934, the Penguin Pool at London Zoo is one of the most important modernist buildings in Britain. In 2004, the penguins were removed because of concerns regarding animal welfare. Since then, the iconic architecture has been ‘empty’, animated only by water fountains. In the video, this emptiness is emphasised by masking out the zoo environment. Without the visual context of the surrounding, the Penguin Pool becomes a kind of mock-up.