Story published August 2011
The Festival of Britain:
The Dome of Discovery and the Skylon at the Festival of Britain 1951
Image reference: OP04524. English Heritage. NMR
Celebrating 'a tonic to the nation'
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain, a light-hearted and vibrant celebration of British industry, arts, architecture, science and technology. The official opening of this national exhibition was on 3rd May 1951 and it ran for five months. Conceived as a celebration of Britain’s recovery after the war on the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Festival was a bright spark at a time of austerity and rationing, and was called a ‘Tonic to the Nation’.
The Royal Festival Hall as it appeared in the late 1950s. Seaside (right) and the Thameside Restaurant (left) survive from the festival, together with the shot tower
Image reference: AA98/05906. English Heritage. NMR
The 1951 exhibition
The main exhibition site was on the South Bank of the Thames in London. The small, 27 acre site had previously accommodated warehouses and a brewery, damaged in the Blitz. Hugh Casson was appointed Director of Architecture for the Festival and he brought in dozens of other young architects to design the site’s buildings and landscaping.
The exhibition buildings on the South Bank, with the exception of the Royal Festival Hall, were only intended to exist for the duration of the Festival.
Among them was the futuristic-looking Dome of Discovery which was then the largest aluminium structure ever to have been erected. Another iconic structure, and the most remembered, was the Skylon. This steel and aluminium structure lacked a practical function save as a landmark and was described as ‘…a huge, lively joke, a tribute only to the spirit of nonsense and creative laughter’.
Despite proposals to move them to Crystal Palace, the Dome and Skylon, with most of the other buildings, were demolished in March 1952. The Telekinema survived until in 1957 it was replaced by the National Film Theatre.
Visitors to the Festival of Britain
Image reference: OP04513. English Heritage. NMR
Other sites of the Festival included the Pleasure Gardens in Battersea Park and a ‘Live Architecture’ exhibit in Poplar, East London, a real piece of post-war rebuilding that was a model for Britain’s New Towns. The FS Campagnia was a travelling exhibition on a ship, while the Land Exhibition visited Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham and Nottingham, and small villages and major cities across Britain staged their own Festival events.
People riding the waterchute fairground ride at the Pleasure Gardens in Battersea Park
Image reference: AA077613. © English Heritage. NMR
The Festival's legacy
Due to the temporary nature of many of the structures, little remains of the Festival’s built legacy. The event did, however, go on to influence the disciplines of architecture, landscape, interior design and product design in the form of what became known as the ‘Festival Style’. New towns such as Harlow and the rebuilding of Coventry city centre, show the influence of the style in their light structures, picturesque layout and incorporation of works of art.
Despite the passing of sixty years, the Festival of Britain continues to capture the imagination of the British public. From April until September 2011 a festival of art, culture and creativity is being held at London’s Southbank Centre to celebrate the Festival’s anniversary. There will be an opportunity for people to share their memories and memorabilia from the original event, yet despite a campaign for its return, the Skylon won’t be making a re-appearance.
Discover more about some of the buildings and sites associated with the Festival:
Those listed below were either part of the 1951 Festival or their design was influenced by it in some way.
Dome of Discovery
Royal Festival Hall
The Lion and Unicorn Pavilion
The County Pavilion
219 Oxford Street, London
Harlow Market Square
Coventry Cathedral – the light roofs and works of art are in the ‘Festival Style’
Image reference: DP082254. © English Heritage. NMR