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Flashback to 2011: When Dudley Zoo got facelift thanks to lottery

By Heather Large | Dudley | Attractions | Published:

They were built to help visitors get closer to the animals at Dudley Zoo and to complement the site’s 11th century castle.

The old sign discovered at the Bear Ravine

But the attraction’s dozen Tecton buildings have also received world-wide acclaim for the pioneering way in which they were made.

And in July 2011 it was announced that some of the unique concrete structures would be given a new lease of life with the start of a £1.15 million restoration project.

There were celebrations as the attraction was awarded funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund towards renovating four of its historic Tecton buildings.

As well as lying within a conservation area, the zoo is home to the world’s largest single collection of Tecton buildings, named after the renowned Modernist architects chosen to design the attraction in the 1930s and led by Russian-born Berthold Lubetkin.

The Tecton Group were instrumental in bringing Modernist architecture to the UK, and this complex survives as the only collection of interrelated Tecton designs in Britain and one of few remaining throughout Europe.

The bear ravine in 1970

The Tecton structures were designed and constructed at Dudley Zoo between 1935 and 1937 using reinforced concrete – a pioneering system at the time.

Architects were able to mould pre-stressed concrete to create attractive enclosures to fit in with the landscape and the steep slopes of the Castle Hill site.

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Among the structures is the zoo’s iconic wave entrance where the material has been curved to create the eye-catching shape.

The designers also wanted to ensure there were no bars on the enclosures which made Dudley Zoo different from other zoos when it opened in 1937.

In 2011, 11 of the Tectons were still used as over the years the zoo had carried out restoration work using its own funds as well as grants.

They include the polar bear complex which once provided homes to lions as well as polar bears but was later used as an enclosure for a brown bear, a tiger and Gelada baboons.

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The only Tecton not being used was the bear ravine but that one of the structures due to be given a new lease of life as part of the £1.15million project due to start the following year.

It would see the enclosure along with the wave entrance, one of the two kiosks and the safari shop, formerly a cafe, restored.

The Bear Ravine – considered by many to be Lubetkin's finest work – has been completed ahead of schedule

Speaking at the time, Dudley Zoo chairman, Councillor David Sparks, OBE, said: "These buildings are amongst the most significant in the history of Modern Architecture.

"People just do not realise how much today’s world has been shaped by the concepts and techniques pioneered with these buildings in the 1930s.”

Peter Suddock, who was chief executive of the zoo in 2011, said: “We think the best way of maintaining these buildings is to use them. Although they may not be used for their original purpose, we have found a way to use them.”

It was also announced that the zoo’s ageing chair lift, which closed in 2000, would also be given a revamp.

The chair lift, which dates back to 1958, closed in 2000 because there were fears someone could fall out of one of the single-seat chairs or tamper with the mechanism, despite there never being any accidents.

It is similar in design to those used at ski resorts and at the time was one of only three in the UK with the others in Derbyshire and the Isle of Wight.

Under the plans, it was to be brought up to modern-day standards so it could once again transport visitors 125ft up the side of the hill to Dudley Castle.

Chief executive Peter Suddock, views the refurbished bear ravine at Dudley Zoo

And in August 2012 work was completed and it reopened to carry passengers.

Among the first to use the lift were Rachael Fullelove, aged 43, and Ian Round, 47, with their six-year-old son Alex of Brierley Hill. Miss Fullelove said: "It's really great to see the chairlift back again. I remember going on it when I was four."

The three-month project to restore the lift included shot-blasting and painting of the 41 chairs and re-fitting all 76 wheels in the roller mechanism.

Work began in September 2013 on the iconic Tecton entrance to the zoo and the adjacent Safari Cafe, now a giftshop, and was completed in 2014.

The old entrance building, with its distinctive series of S-shaped interlocking canopies, has been restored to its original sky blue paint scheme and visitors now enter the zoo via the restored shop.

The structures, along with the bear ravine and the kiosk, were carefully restored, with technical assistance from the Twentieth Century Society and with the participation of students from Dudley College.

Chief executive Peter Suddock is pictured at the original "Tecton" entrance to Dudley Zoo, in Castle Hill, Dudley, which has been restored to its former glory

During the restoration of the kiosk, workers removing paint found an advert for Black Country sweet company Teddy Gray's rock dating back to 1937, when the zoo first opened to the public.

While over at the Bear Ravine's pit wall workmen came across an enamel plaque circa 1950.

Heather Large

By Heather Large
Special projects reporter - @HeatherL_star

Senior reporter and part of the Express & Star special projects team specialising in education and human interest features.

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