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April 27, 2011 / Leo Hollis

1951 – Festival of Britain – excerpt from THE STONES OF LONDON

The Festival of Britain was different event altogether to the Empire Exhibition. In 1951, the nation’s imperial power was about to crumble, but the nation was just thankful to have survived the previous twenty-eight years. On the morning of 3 May, King George VI stood in front of St Paul’s Cathedral, the symbol of the undefeated capital made iconic by the photo of Sir Christoper Wren’s dome high above the dust and fire of the Blitz on 29 December 1940. Unlike his father George V at Wembley, there was no fanfare for Britain’s superiority and dominance of the world; instead,  under grey skies, on 3 May, the king offered that the opening of this new festival would present a new dawn, a hopeful future: ‘let us pray that by God’s good grace the vast range of modern knowledge may be turned from destructive to peaceful ends, so that all people, as the century goes on, may be lifted to greater happiness.’

The royal party then moved from the cathedral churchyard in open top carriages along crowd lined streets and crossed the river at Waterloo Bridge. Entering the festival ground they were greeted by 14,000 invited guests, and were shown around the site, culminating in a concert of British music – Elgar’s ‘Pomp and Circumstance’, ‘Rule Britannia’ and the English by default Handel – in the newly finished Festival Concert Hall. The Festival would remain open for the next five months and attract  over 10 million visitors. As the designer H T Cadbury Brown noted, ‘There was a real sense in which the Festival marked an upturn in people’s lives . . .it was an event for a new dawn, for enjoying life on modern terms, with modern technology.’ For a short moment, out of the debris and upheaval of the second world war, the future was made bright and solid, the hopes of a new nation turned to stone besides the Thames.

Dreams of a festival, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1851 Great Exhibition had been born in the midst of War yet it was not until 1948, that a government committee declared that such an event might ‘demonstrate to the world the recovery of the Unite Kingdom from the effects of the war in moral, cultural, spiritual fields’. This was also taken up by Herbert Morrison, the former head of the London County Council, now Labour MP (and grandfather to Lord Mandleson) who wanted the event to be ‘the people’s show’ and a ’tonic for the nation’, as a part of the welfare revolution that followed the end of the war.

There was also a need for a new civic concert hall in London after the complete destruction of the Queen’s Hall, Langham Place that was destroyed on the last night of the Blitz, 11 May 1941. Some advocated Hyde Park, the original site of the 1851 exhibition, but soon it was decided that the South Bank of the Thames, opposite Bazalgette’s Victoria Embankment, was more appropriate. The riverside was a shambles of wharves, old factories and working class houses – hardly the image of a bright new future city – in addition it would be cheap to purchase for with only three years to complete the planning and building, time and money were tight.

The festival itself was divided into two sections; for the visitor who crossed the river at Hungerford Bridge, remembers George Simner, ‘’it was a new world . . after coming out of these dirty streets that had been bombed.’ The building of the many different pavilions clustered around the permanent Concert Hall was placed in the hands of Hugh Casson and his team of young designers, none over 45 years old. Together they had an opportunity like none before to present their vision for the future of modern English architecture to the nation. ‘On this ground,’ trumpeted the official guide book, ‘so recently a derelict and bomb scarred wilderness, has arisen not a tangle of jerry-built and pokey dwellings, but a new urban landscape.’

For the purists who aspired only to find a new Britain rebuilt upon the severe lines of interwar European Modernism – the radical vision of Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe, were to be disappointed; however, even the softer, more Scandanavian use of new materials and designs were too much for some: on his visit, the laureate of Metroland, John Betjamin, could only express relief that the ‘Gamboling functionalist’ had not tried to be funny. If the festival was some kind of indication of the future of British design, then once again it had absorbed the best ideas from the continent but had not replicated them, rather found a way to accommodate these new terms within the native language of building. AS a result even the esteemed historian of English classicism, Sir John Summerson, thought the show ‘an out and out winner’.

At the centre of the site was the Festival Hall, a new concert hall for London designed by the London County Council chief architect Robert Matthew. Because of the cramped site and the desire to create not just a place for music but a cultural centre – a people’s palace – with bars, restaurants, rehearsal space, a gallery, he was forced to push the hall itself into the air, suspended over the main hall, and build all the rest underneath and around. From the outside, Betjamin thought it looked like the Tote, the state-run bookmakers, but the interior, despite being ‘modishly modernist’ was a triumph. It was also worth noting the attention to detail for the fittings: the young designer Robin Day was named furniture consultant and he created folding chairs for the auditorium and the iconic Butterfly chair molded from a single piece of plywood.

To the west of the Hall stood Ralph Taubb’s Dome of Discovery, at 356ft wide, the largest aluminum structure in the world.  It was designed to show off Britian’s long heritage in exploration and innovation. Nearby the Skylon, a ninety ft visual joke in steel and wire rose seemingly unsuspended into the sky. Designed by Philip Powell and Hidalgo Moya, it was the winning design in the competition for a ‘vertical feature’. The poet Margaret Sheppard Fisher came up with the name, Skylon as a fusion of sky-hook and pylon, yet some were disappointed when looking too closely to see wires holding the 100 tonne structure in the air.There was also the Telecinema that boasted 3D films.

The Lion and Unicorn Pavilion was by far the most extraordinary, not for its design but its contents, collated by the write Laurie Lee, who advertised for oddities. For many it was a celebration of British eccentricity, although the entry for a model of the south bank, built out of toilet rolls did not make the cut. He also received model instruments made from matchsticks, artificial limbs and buses made from rubber. Nonetheless it contained every from the Magna Carta to the scribbled page proofs of Winston Churchill’s History of the Second World War.  It was also filled with historic British painting by Constable and Gainsborough, while  the Homes and Gardens pavilion showcased the very latest in design and arts, including Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Joseph Epstein. Amongst the artworks, the pavilion also displayed the new way of living – a vision of the ideal post war home, with examples of contemporary fabrics, many designed by Robin Day’s wife, Lucienne, as well as a teenage Terence Conran who would later define the domestic taste of a generation.

Yet the Festival was not only to be found on the South Bank; as well as the temporary pavilions events and shows were organised throughout the country. Over 86,000 went to visit the Lansbury Estate, in Poplar, a few miles down the Thames in the East End. Here was an example of a new system of social housing, a modern council estate built out of the squalor of the working class slum and rising from the rubble of the Blitz. That June, Sir John Summerson also went to visit the estate and and described what he saw: ‘the general idea is the redevelopment of a neighbourhood . . .the old street pattern is wiped out and a new pattern, with fewer streets, imposed; houses and flats are loosely and agreeably mixed, there is a fluent adequacy of ope space and churches and schools are will sited.’ The old terraced streets of squalid brick houses had been torn apart either by the bombs or the wreckers ball, and replaced by a new configuration of what a community could be, mixed and ordered, wide open spaces, housing organised vertically into the sky as well traditional houses. This was the future.

The estate had been named after George Lansburys a popular East End labour MP, who had long campaigned for social justice in this most deprived region of the city. Architectural critics were luke warm about the design, worried that it lacked purist principles. Yet for the people who were about to move into the new community it was a blessing from the government beyond their expectations: ‘Our new place is just a housewife’s dream,’ reported Alice Snoddy, a part time paper sorter who was moving in with husband, two children and a mother in law, ‘there are fitted cupboards and one to air clothes in, a stainless steel sink, hot water tanks, its the sort of home to be proud of.’.

The work at the Landsbury Estate and the hopes for the birth of modern Britain within the Festival grounds were expressions of a deep transformation within London and the nation.The second world war had changed pretty much everything, and everything had to be reformed to survive in the new post war world.


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