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29 June 2011

Revisiting the Festival of Britain

How the age of austerity came to an end on the South Bank.

By David Bernstein

I’ve been revisiting my youth, touring “Museum of ’51” at the Royal Festival Hall and reading Barry Turner’s Beacon for Change, How the Festival of Britain shaped the modern age. The museum experience was not an unalloyed pleasure.

Did its designers deliberately recreate a museum of the period?. The captions are small, crowded, passive and often inconveniently located. The contemporary documentaries serve the purpose better but their emphasis on ordinary people, ordinarily clothed, triumphs over the extraordinary surroundings and reinforces the impression of drabness though, indirectly, reminding me of the Festival’s promise: austerity would end.

Its impresario, Gerald Barry, emphasised the need for gaiety, welcoming the serious whilst eliminating the earnest. He set the tone, reprising it, a month after the Festival closed, in the New Statesman: “We tried to say our piece disarmingly with wit and an occasional dig at ourselves.” Precociously post modern!

Barry had an ally in like-minded Hugh Casson, the director of architecture. The enterprise had a coherent personality, unlike the Millennium Dome at the century’s end

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The Festival also had a dome, the biggest aluminium structure ever built, the Dome of Discovery. It was just one of 14 pavilions. Another was originally called “The communication of ideas”. “Too dull,” said Casson and rebranded it “The Lion and the Unicorn” to reflect Britain’s strength and imagination. It promoted, according to Turner, “an artificial national self-image … [ becoming] possibly the most popular feature of the entire Festival”.It also inspired the entire Festival which an official documentary summed up as “serious fun and light-hearted solemnity”.

A third structure – one of four prominently featured in “Museum of 51”, the other being Abram Games’s omnipresent Britannia logo – was Skylon. A futuristic aluminium icon, 90 metres high, created by architects Hidalgo Moya and Philip Powell with engineer Felix Samuel, it had form but no overt function. The caption in the current display reads: “It did not stand for democracy, freedom or future happiness. It did not stand at all”. So there.

If Skylon epitomised the Festival’s whimsical side, it also symbolised the qualified victory of Barry and Casson over bureaucratic interference by authority, government or union, forever enshrined in Casson’s phrase “armed invincibly against the enchantment of enthusiasm”.

I witnessed officialdom in action in my vacation role of temporary turnstile operator at the Battersea Park funfair. Chelsea on the opposite bank shared a bridge with Battersea but its council opposed the idea of a festival and switched off its half of the bridge’s lights one hour before Battersea.

What was the Festival’s legacy? “The melding of modernist design with breakthroughs in science and technology,” says Turner, “[offered] a tantalising glimpse of the future … in the following decades grants to museums, galleries and performing arts increased fourfold .. the Festival became a blueprint for new towns.” Said Casson :”for the first time in generations architecture has been talked and written about by people who are not architects”.

The Royal Festival Hall endures but, unlike its Millennium counterpart, the Dome of Discovery (and the other pavilions and Skylon) went to scrap when Churchill resumed power.

The Festival would be criticised for being middle class, urban rather than rural and an odd mixture, as Cheryl Buckey puts in her 2007 book Designing Modern Britain, of “the progressive, paternalistic and anachronistic”. Though “Museum of 51” could be similarly described, I emerged understanding how the Festival was both what deputy prime minister Herbert Morrison hoped it would be, “a tonic to the nation” and, what Turner terms it, “a beacon for change”.

David Bernstein is an author and creative consultant. He is a former creative director of three advertising agencies

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