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Duration 18:44

Brief City

Unlike the Global theme of the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Festival in 1951 was specifically focussed on British achievments.

Labour politician Herbert Morrison saw the Festival as a means of giving the British people a symbolic pat on the back for their post-war achievements and sacrifices. Gerald Barry, the Festival’s director general, claimed that the Festival would prove a ‘tonic to the nation’, however, not everyone was convinced.

Sir Thomas Beecham described it as ‘a monumental piece of imbecility’. Others claimed that the site on London’s South Bank would be a death trap because of overcrowding. It has been alleged that the Festival’s switchboard girl answered the telephone with, ‘Festering Britain here!’

Despite the high-profile criticism and economic gloom, due to the mass rearmament programme of the Korean War (1950-53). The Festival was actually a far more popular success than prophesised. In the five months that it was held (May – September 1951), around 8.5 million people visited the South Bank site.


Patrick O´Donovan: 8.5 million people visited this place. They came here all through the summer of 1951. I went with Sir Hugh Casson: he´s the smaller of the two: and we had the place to ourselves. Yes, it was over, it was part of London´s past, it had joined all the other exhibitions, all the crashing military parades, the glittering state occasions, all the ceremony and display that helped to make the public life and tradition of this capital city. Most of it has been pulled down by now, but I remember too the first time we went there. As soon as you pushed through the turnstile and passed impatient attendants there was as surprise, a sudden sense of space and leisured gaiety.

Sir Hugh Casson: That´s what we hoped for, we built it as a place to walk about in, a place if you like, for pleasure. Outside there were the thundering dark bridges that lift the railway over the miles of dark Victorian streets, there were pubs for hurried beer drinkers and grey churches run up on the cheap. Outside the soot and the smoke were in charge, inside it blazed with bright nursery colours.

Sir Hugh Casson: That screen was built to cut off the darker side of London. Trees and grass were planted to act as a foil to the painted walls and the metal. An exhibition ought to have an air or gaiety, and the colours were as carefully considered as the forms of the building.

Patrick O´Donovan: This was the building that attracted most attention. It was the largest dome that had ever been built, it was rather like a ship, it was a live thing that moved and strained with the changes of weather and temperature, its roof was both carried and tethered by those slender spars that were hinged, so that they could move and give a little when the wind caught one side of the building. The side walls supported nothing, they were no more than curtains against the light and weather, and they were not the same distance from the edge all the way round, you could walk round this thing and, at every pace, the proportions, the shape and the view changed. It was not simply a gigantic mushroom; it was a considered work of art as well as an achievement in engineering. And the Skylon, well that was a simple formula in three dimensions, in steel and aluminium and wire. Every part of it did precisely the job it was designed to do. Why, simply to hang up a bit in the air and astonish. Really, the place was like a gigantic toyshop for adults. It was a series of surprises; now serious, now witty, now rather vulgar, now even a little mad, the British sea side was celebrated in a crowded corner by the river, a mixture of rock shops, of roundabouts, of donkeys, of pointless models that merely pleased, or bright temporary awnings and bits of rope and netting. All together, it somehow captured that inexplicable lift of the heart that hurrying into sandals and sports shirts, that placid sitting on the sands, that brief forgetting of the office and the factory, which happens when the British go down to the seaside for their holidays.

Sir Hugh Casson: We meant this exhibition to be part of London, not just a piece of clever eccentricity. The British don´t generally like rhetoric in their buildings, there are few ceremonial avenues in our cities, on purpose then, the South Bank had no processional way and no great vistas. On purpose, it didn´t have the symmetry and the repetitive grandeur of some other great cities and their exhibitions. It was planned intimately, like rooms opening one out of another. Each room or courtyard differed in size and shape, and colour, character and furniture. Sometimes the change from room to room was made between the narrow openings between the shoulders of buildings. Sometimes by a sudden change of level and sometimes by a change in the pattern and texture of the ground. Every courtyard contained the hint of another to follow, or the memory of one just passed. And this was not merely exhibition antics, devised to surprise and impress, it was in fact basically the traditional way of building in this country.

Patrick O´Donovan: The most powerful citizen in England, the Prime Minister, lives like a professional man in a plain house, on the side of a narrow cul-de-sac. London is a city of secret places, of unexpected country lands and hidden gardens. In London, even the splendour of St Paul´s´ Cathedral is throttled by drab warehouses. The River Thames was once London´s busiest highway. But today London turns its back on the River, the average Londoner, like all Englishman, is fond of the water, but is only indirectly aware of it. For him it´s an off stage presence, a distance hoot from a tug, a sudden hollow rumble from beneath the rails of a railway carriage, perhaps a ship´s funnel, seen for a second over some low rooftops. But here on the South Bank we tried to give London a new riverside, and this meant more than building an embankment, the water had to be part of the architecture and this meant light open railings beside the water, and balconies suspended above it. The Riverside Walk was designed to use these devices so that water became part of the show. You saw it from half a dozen different levels as you walked between the buildings. The details all looked as if they had been carefully considered, the peculiar statues in important places, the chairs that tired people sat on, the lettering that lost people looked at, the bins for nice people to put their paper in.

Sir Hugh Casson: Buildings aren´t just boxes with four walls and a lid, they´re as complex as the lives we lead, there are no fixed rules, they must be practical and pleasant, and nowadays of course they mustn´t cost too much. And we tried to suggest here some of the things that can be done. The garden and terrace can be made to come right inside, or the roof to swing out above lawns. Staircases can arch out apparently unsupported into the air. In an exhibition which is temporary and perhaps experimental, these devices are of course exaggerated. But they´re part in a modern architect´s stock in trade, and they´re being applied every day to ordinary building problems, to schools and houses, shops and factories. Some of the walls may have looked thin, but with modern materials a thin skin can do the same job as a thick wall, because the thinness is not guessed but calculated.

Patrick O´Donovan: In among these unfamiliar shapes, there were the visitors, and they were not dwarfed by the show, they were part of it. There were the thousands of women whose feet hurt and weren´t going to give up. There were clusters of fierce little boys, filled with their secret purposes. There were suspicious housewives who wondered what they´d have to buy the disappointed ones who wanted free samples. There were the militant individualists who weren´t going to take any notice of the officious arrows, and blame the organisers when they got lost. There were the lovers that were indifferent to it all. There were people who began to feel uncomfortable yet hesitated to ask. There were cautious intellectuals who´d seen better in Stockholm and Paris There were the foreigners in un-English clothes who secretly got stared at behind their backs, while they were often amazed at this spectacle of the British at their ease. There were people who wanted tea, and people who wanted a four course dinner with two sorts of wine. And all of them in a special mood, slightly excited, slightly exaggerated. A mood that had been made by the building, the colour and the music.

Sir Hugh Casson: One of the greatest successes of the South Bank was the North Bank, a great stone drop curtain of familiar buildings, familiar, but here perhaps really seen for the first time. We used this existing scenery with care, emphasising, exaggerating, screening. Big Ben was withheld from view and then suddenly revealed, a Victorian block of flats looked like a fairy palace crowned with a forest of flags and turrets. The dome of St Paul´s floated above London but beneath a mobile sculpture. And we used other fixtures too, a barge dock that had been exposed by the bombing, was patched and painted to serve as a yacht basin. The old ship tower was topped with a radar device. The site wasn´t bulldozed flat like a pre-war housing site just to make things easy and level and dull. There were flights of steps that led from one area to another. They formed plinths for buildings or settings for fountains. They linked or separated, they dramatised or played down.

Patrick O´Donovan: Buildings are the settings in which men move, and they can affect his way of life almost as much as his diet and his clothing. A well designed town is part of his wealth. Here at the South Bank there was a blueprint for new towns, light hearted, sensible, not too dear, practical and never boring. It was also the setting for the pageantry that British people love. It was a setting for the horrible things that happen under English skies. This is a time when the lights go on in the ordinary streets and people think of what to do and where to go. This is the time when night falls in the city and across the river, and cars glisten in the street lights. The noise in the business districts drains away and in the suburban roads there´s only the sound of quick feet on a pavement. There was half an hour when the lights struggled with what was left of the day. And then in the artificial glitter the music took charge, and then it was most lovely and least serious. It is not a usual custom for people to dance in public in England, but here the place and the occasion seemed to demand it. People enjoyed this, even if they had to dance grotesquely in overcoats and late in the year. It may have taught the men who are building our cities something, it may have given impetus to a new approach to building here in Britain. But for ordinary people, it was fun. There were no resounding proud messages here, no one was taught to hate anything, At a time when nations were becoming assertive and more intolerant, here was a national exhibition that avoided these emotions, and tried to stay rational. In a bad year in the world´s history, it had a spiritual quality that is worth remembering.