Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Many people visit zoos to see apes, wild cats and okapi. But some visitors to Dudley Zoo in the English Midlands are drawn by quite another reason. Dudley Zoo boasts a fine collection of Constructivist buildings designed by Berthold Lubetkin and his Tecton group of architects. The Lubetkin legacy in Dudley and elsewhere in England deserves to be far better known and much more valued.

article summary —

In 1867, a learned English economist called William Stanley Jevons presented an apocalyptic view of how the landscape of that part of the English Midlands known as the Black Country might look one hundred years hence. Jevons suggested that the town of Dudley would be well nigh deserted, its streets grass-grown, with the last inhabitant sitting on the ruins of the old castle and surveying a barren post-industrial wasteland abandoned by humans and left to animals.

Of course Jevons never had the chance to return to Dudley Castle in 1967 to see if there was a grain of truth in his awful prediction. The economist died in 1882. Had Jevons’ ghost stood on the great mound of Dudley Castle in 1967, he might well have seen all manner of wild animals. He could certainly have glimpsed apes and great cats, with luck even some bears or penguins. For in 1937, Dudley Zoo opened its doors to the public, from the outset branding itself as “the most modern in Europe, a zoo without bars.” And, as our phantom observer surveyed the terrain around the castle ruins, he would have seen a remarkable collection of zoo buildings. In 1967, the buildings of Dudley Zoo would have seemed as uncompromisingly modern as on the day they were built. This is the story of how an émigré from the Soviet Union called Berthold Lubetkin and his Tecton group of radical architects came to Dudley and gave this rather unlikely Black Country town a remarkable feast of world class architecture.

Berthold Lubetkin was born in Tbilisi in 1901 at a time when Georgia was part of the Russian Empire. Lubetkin came from a Russian Jewish family that travelled prodigiously and even as a child he visited several countries in western and central Europe. He studied in Moscow and St Petersburg and witnessed the Russian Revolution first hand.

The beginnings

By the time Lubetkin qualified as an architect, he was a committed socialist. His early work shows the influence of the Russian Constructivist school. Take a dash of Le Corbusier, add a dose of Nikolai Ladovsky and you enter the avant-garde world in which Soviet architects of the twenties excelled as they playfully managed space.

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Nicky Gardner is editor of hidden europe and also the principal author of the magazine. Where a text is not specifically attributed to an author, it is the work of Nicky. Below, you’ll find a small selection of her articles in hidden europe magazine. Nicky also writes regularly for other media. She is co-author (with Susanne Kries) of the book Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide, the 17th edition of which was published 2022.

Nicky Gardner was liberated from a life enslaved to performance indicators and business plans to become a travel writer. She gives thanks for that daily. Nicky writes about culture and communities, about memorable landscapes and also about journeys. Over the years she's picked up a thing or two about product life cycles, the book trade and publishing, ticketing APIs, how libraries work and the high theology of grant giving.

Nicky reads geography books, railway timetables and maps entirely for pleasure - and lots of real books too! She loves nothing more than a slow meander by public transport around some unsung part of Europe. Nicky is particularly interested in issues of identity and culture in eastern Europe and the Balkans, in linguistic minorities and in island communities. Her pet loves are public libraries, Armenian food and anything coloured purple. Nicky cannot abide suburban sprawl, supermarkets and fast trains. Nicky has since 2007 been a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers. Nicky is especially keen on historical travel writing: Edith Durham, Gertrude Bell and Isabelle Eberhardt are among her favourites. Nicky can be contacted at editors [at] hiddeneurope.eu.

This article was published in hidden europe 31.