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Animals that Live in the Mirror: On Colonial Bestiaries and Interspecies Architecture

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In 1934 Berthold Lubetkin unveiled a new development designed for a peculiar client and located in a curious place. Lubetkin’s “The Penguin Pool” was the second building that he had built in as many years for the London Zoo and it was meant to house the zoo’s newest acquisition of Antarctic penguins. The Penguin Pool was well received amongst architectural critics and the popular press alike and, as a relatively small concrete oval sunk into the ground with two elevated paths extending from the walls (Fig. 1), it represented a particular modernist ideal of visuality. At the same time though, what’s good for viewing subjects may not necessarily be good for the subjects themselves. And what’s good for people may not necessarily be good for penguins. The pool, designed for the eyes of the human spectator, resulted in a lengthy and list of problems for the penguins. Even that most modernist choice of materials – the decision to form the entire living area out of concrete – proved harmful as many of the penguins developed aching joints from having to walk on the hard surface.

In taking this architectural episode as one that is emblematic of the broader role of the animal in modern architecture, this article explores the curious relationship between animal, human and environment. Specifically, it argues that the construction choices of Lubetkin’s pool make visible a common theme that extends across all of modern architecture: a willful ignorance of, or a concerted effort to control, biological life. Through an analysis of three related objects: the Penguin Pool, an archive of Le Corbusier’s sketches of animals, writings about his experiences in Algeria and hybridized creatures, and the artist Dan Graham’s installations, My Two-Way Mirror Pavilions, this work draws together these attempts to control biological life with colonial discourses on the animality of the colonial subject and on Neo-Darwinist ideas of natural hierarchy. By exploring these discourses as they are related to an imagined incommensurability and stratification of species, this article highlight the discursive constructs that work against shared, communal, and engaging multi species environments. And against these discursive forces, this work closes with a rereading of both interspecies communication and evolutionary agency by pushing against arguments of interspecies incommensurability and focusing on instead on a call to reconsider the environment as a totality of shared, interspecies, experiences.
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Keywords: Evolution; Interspecies Architecture; Le Cobusier; Modernism; Umwelt

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Concordia University

Publication date: June 1, 2019

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  • PUBLIC is a beautifully designed peer-reviewed journal founded in Toronto as an intellectual and creative forum that focuses on how theoretical, and critical issues intersect with art and visual culture. Each issue's editors explore a contemporary theme by bringing together a unique assemblage of Canadian and international art projects with writing by scholars, curators, critics, and artists. This, along with book and exhibit reviews, creates an assemblage of artists projects and original writing on prescient contemporary themes in art and culture.
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