Revive spirit of festival and add some fun into planning

Model of the exhibition, showing its informal, picturesque layout.
Model of the exhibition, showing its informal, picturesque layout.

Civic Society column with David Winpenny

From May to the end of September 1951 the Festival’s main focus, on the South Bank of the Thames in London, had roused a grey and war-weary country into a new spirit of optimism with its displays of modern buildings and its bright colours, telling the story of Britain (which in this case also included Northern Ireland): the ‘Land and its People’ was the slogan its organisers liked to trumpet.

The South Bank Exhibition, with Basil Spences Sea and Ships Pavilion.

The South Bank Exhibition, with Basil Spences Sea and Ships Pavilion.

The Festival on the South Bank attracted 8.5 million visitors (the adjacent Pleasure Gardens at Battersea more than 8 million as well).

It was a great triumph, masterminded by the Labour Government that took over the country in 1945, with its programme of nationalisation and social care. And its Labour origins were in large part the reason for its demolition; when the Conservatives won the General Election of October 1951 the first order of the new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was to clear the whole of the South Bank site except the Festival Hall, which was always intended to be a permanent building. He didn’t want any reminder of a popular Labour success.

So the country lost the Dome of Discovery, then the world’s largest aluminium dome, and the Skylon, the vertical feature that seemed to float over the exhibition – like the British economy, the wags said ‘without any visible means of support’.

Away went the Sea and Ships Pavilion, designed by Basil Spence, even then designing Coventry Cathedral, and the Lion and Unicorn Pavilion, the Power and Production Pavilion, the ’51 Bar, the Fairway Cafe and a multitude of other exciting structures.

The central concourse and Fairway, with the Transport Pavilion.

The central concourse and Fairway, with the Transport Pavilion.

Many of these buildings proved influential over the next few years, as Festival-of-Britain-inspired structures sprang up all over the country (even Ripon’s NatWest Bank and the recently-demolished flats on Allhallowgate were a distant echo of the festival). And not only were whole structures influenced – keep your eyes open and you’ll soon spot details like railings in the form of curved-ended zig-zags or screens with atom-like spheres as decoration, both derived from Festival design.

Many of the ideas brought to life at the Festival of Britain were derived from other immediately-post-war displays, or from exhibitions that had taken place in the 1930s, especially in continental Europe. And, of course, the immediate mainspring of the Festival of Britain was to commemorate the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851. But as far as the layout of the South Bank show went, the organisers were looking even further back into British history.

They were in part inspired by a book that came out in 1927. Called The Picturesque: Studies in a Point of View,’ it was written by art historian Christopher Hussey and dealt with the 18th Century taste in landscape. Hussey had pointed out that 18th Century landowners had formed their parks on principles that incorporated a natural look as much as possible – a conscious recreation of the sorts of paintings by, for example, Poussin, Claude Lorraine and Salvator Rosa, that they hung in their mansions.

They wanted to make their landscapes into pictures – hence picturesque. Immediately after the Second World War, just as the Festival of Britain was being considered, planners and architects latched on to the idea of the picturesque as a way in which the layout of towns and cities could be improved.

Their aim was to do away with the grime and clutter of places scarred not only by war but also by two centuries of the effects of the Industrial Revolution. A new word came into the popular vocabulary – townscape.

The Festival of Britain was the ideal place in which to try out the new ideas of a picturesque townscape. Early exhibitions, like the 1851 Great Exhibition, had been held in large single buildings.

Some later exhibitions had used separate pavilions in which to house different groups of exhibits, but nearly all had laid out the buildings in formal rows. At the South Bank the layout was deliberately informal, with an irregular square at the centre and curving boulevards (one called Fairway) and informal areas around the buildings, which were set down seemingly at random.

The Festival of Britain organisers saw the 18th Century picturesque as a particularly British contribution to the history of art; this was argued by Nikolaus Pevsner in an article in 1949 that urged architects to look at the picturesque as they designed their new buildings. At the Festival, the architects and designers took the idea and ran with it, producing an experience for the visitor that combined innovative and inspiring buildings with carefully-considered hard and soft landscaping and plenty of intriguing details – bunting and planters, mobiles and sculptures, fountains and lighting, changes of level and contrasts of dimness and light.

It was, perhaps, quite a long way from the 18th Century ideas of the picturesque, but the organisers had hit on a style that was very much in keeping with the zeitgeist.

Post-war Britain needed cheering up, and the festival was, in the words of one of its leading lights, ‘a tonic to the nation’. How much more influential it might have been had not Churchill issued his order to have it removed post haste in autumn 1951 is one of the imponderables of architectural history.

Certainly, as even local buildings demonstrate, something of its legacy remains; but perhaps we need to grasp the concept of the picturesque townscape once again – a concept that modern planning seems to have lost.

It was planning on a human scale, putting people, not commercial or governmental desires, at the forefront of planning. Above all, it looked at places in the round, not just as a collection of structures on which to make individual planning judgements.

Picturesque planning is as much about ‘the spaces in between’ as the structures themselves. Maybe we should revive the spirit of the 1951 Festival of Britain and get back some of the fun of planning that we’ve misplaced over the last 65 years.