The Festival of Britain was a national festival centred on a public exhibition situated at London’s Southbank from May to September in 1951. It was initially planned as a kind of follow-up event to the Great Exhibition of 1851, but in a new, modern context. The aims of the Festival were to introduce a post-war nation to innovations in modern design, architecture, science and technology, but to also celebrate Britain itself, and to provide pure pleasure, relief and enjoyment to a public who were feeling the depressive effects of a war-torn homeland, and the event proved to succeed in all of these aims. It also succeeded in fully integrating the seemingly divergent fields of science, fine art and architecture. One of the chief figures of the Festival, Misha Black, reflects that it aimed “to show that painters and sculptors could work with architects, landscape architects and exhibition designers to produce an aesthetic unity.” It could be said that their involvement with the Festival raised the profile and status of people of these professions.
The Southbank site was comprised of several exhibition structures, including the Dome of Discovery, the Lion & Unicorn Pavilion, and the Land of Britain pavilion, as well as the sculptural Skylon structure, a tall, futuristic illumination, and the more permanent Royal Festival Hall. Architecture was overseen by Hugh Casson, and was influenced largely by the Northern European modernism of Germany and Scandinavia (the latter’s Stockholm Exhibition of 1930 was seen as a model for the Festival). For many of the Festival’s visitors, this innovative, bright and modern environment was a world away from the ruins and remains of the older, grey atmosphere which dominated the nation – but the Modernist optimism of the event pointed towards the new direction architecture would take in the coming years.
Despite being promoted as an apolitical event, the Festival shared many concerns of the Labour government of the time, providing a vision of a new Britain committed to social welfare and Modernism. The Festival was an ideal opportunity to introduce the project of reconstructing the nation in such a way to the public. Ralph Tubbs, architect of the Dome of Discovery, believed that urban planning should consider the wants of the ordinary family, and such beliefs of those involved in the Festival project could only confirm the event’s distinctly left-wing flavour. The introduction of the new Modernist aesthetic to the public was also a very radical idea, as the style opposed even middle-class tastes, which were at this time still firmly rooted in more traditional, embellished aesthetics.
The Festival successfully caught a balance between transmitting wider public information on scientific and technological matters, and all-round fun and pleasure. It combined an educational and informative experience with one of delight and entertainment that could be enjoyed by many. Most importantly, it brought about a sense of wonder and positivity to a nation damaged by a horrific war, and pointed towards an optimistic future. Despite only existing for a matter of 5 months, the Festival left an extensive legacy which is still felt today. Its innovative modern energy paved the way for the radical cultural and social changes to Britain that would occur in the 1960s, and its aesthetic sensibility would influence many areas of British art, design and architecture throughout the remainder of the 20th century, reshaping the daily lives and landscapes of Britain.
Of the major national events of the early 1950s, the Festival often seems to be dismissed by the public memory in favour of the Coronation of 1953. Better suited to the succeeding Conservative government, the latter event draws on the tradition of British events that tend to be more memorable in the public eye. But the Festival should not be forgotten, despite its temporary, ephemeral status. After it closed, the Southbank structures, excluding the Royal Festival Hall, were dismantled and demolished, the site cleared and left dormant for years on end. But the laying of a foundation stone for a new National Theatre on the site hinted towards a new potential cultural hub on the Southbank, and the development of several venues (built in the then-modern Brutalist style) on the site throughout the 1960s and ‘70s ensured that the legacy of the Festival would live on for newer generations. Today the Southbank thrives as a cultural centre, including the National Theatre, the Hayward Gallery and the British Film Institute, and the debts owed to the planners, designers and innovators of the Festival are many.
My research into the Festival of Britain has left me thoroughly inspired. Such a modern, architectural milestone at such a time would sufficiently catch my attention, but the Festival’s integration of a socialist agenda and conscience is particularly fascinating, given my own political views. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the event is indeed its context, that it was conceived and executed shortly after the Second World War to provide enjoyment and relief for the nation, something to inspire and astound, and for people of all classes and positions to enjoy, with an aesthetic that discards the negative connotations of the traditional, pre-war Britain, with its inadequacies and inequalities. In regards to my own creative practice and outlook, the Festival proves to be an encouraging muse in terms of the links between left-wing politics and the Modernist agenda. Having researched the inner workings of the Festival and its endeavours, I am equipped with more references to look to for motivation and ideas. In my own work I feel I have already harnessed the optimism and progressive thinking of the designers, architects and artists of the post-war era, and I hope to take this further.