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1951 August: Forward to Festival of Britain

Conceived at a moment that seemed anything but propitious for holding a great exhibition, the South Bank exhibition triumphantly demonstrated the vitality of contemporary British architecture by introducing a new standard of planning

The Festival of Britain was conceived at a moment when the temperature chart of British history, which throughout recorded time has fluctuated violently between fever heat and absolute zero, could be seen by the whole world to register several degrees below normal. There was no reason-no excuse even- for holding another Great Exhibition, except those provided by memories of the Prince Consort’s courage and enterprise a hundred years before Paxton’s engineering genius.

Building on these flimsy foundations, Sir Gerald Barry’s vision and Herbert Morrison’s faith and pertinacity have nevertheless managed to confront an austerity-ridden people with an exhibition which forcefully reminds them of their traditional ability to make the big gesture effectively whenever they give themselves the chance. They have conjured it up on a, literally, heaven-sent site on the South Bank of the Thames in the middle of London, which their team of designers, led by Hugh Casson, have translated into a triumphant demonstration of the vitality of contemporary British architecture.

In accordance with the criteria by which most things are nowadays judged, the success or otherwise of this brave enterprise will no doubt be measured for political purposes in terms of crowds clicking through the turnstiles or the stimulus given to our export trade, but architects have a more reliable criterion: the physical structure of the exhibition itself. Judged by what is to be seen on the South Bank, 1951 shows every sign of achieving the inconceivable and proving itself the peer of 1851, from the success of which stemmed much of Britain’s prestige during a hundred years and her reputation for vision and initiative.

It is clear to all those who have followed the development of the modern movement in architecture, and who comprehend the ideas for the future still only implicit in it, that at the South Bank exhibition we have not only a major architectural event but a work of art which-like the Crystal Palace before it-has potential world-wide influence.

Like the Great Exhibition of 1851, whose centenary it worthily celebrates, it is in its own way a pioneer. The earliest exhibitions asserted the architectural respectability of engineering, and culminated in Paris 1889, when Gustave Eiffel gave the world his famous tower. The exhibitions which followed contributed first of all new non-antiquarian styles of decoration (art nouveau was propagated in Paris 1900 and jazz-modern in Paris 1925) and then a new non-antiquarian style of architecture.

Stockholm 1930, designed by Gunnar Asplund, for the first time showed modern architecture on a scale that allowed visitors to feel they were entering a world belonging to their own time.

Subsequent exhibitions contributed ideas about the modern use of various materials-for example, timber in Aalto’s Finnish pavilions at Paris 1937, and New York 1939. They also established the modern style of display design (landmarks are the Polish and Swiss pavilions at Paris 1937 and Misha Black’s first large-scale displays at Glasgow 1938).

But the planning of all these exhibitions was, on the whole, orthodox. It was based on the axial avenue, the cross avenue, the rond-point and the vista-in fact on the Beaux Arts tradition, which was at its height when the first great exhibition not contained (like the Hyde Park exhibition of 1851) in a single building was laid out in Paris in 1867. The achievement of the South Bank 1951 is that it presents a complete departure from this tradition. It is planned in an informal style, much better suited to exhibitions than the geometrical style, since it does not exclude the elements of expectation and surprise and gives opportunity for contrast and variety of scale; and it is more useful for trying out planning ideas for permanent use elsewhere, since the geometrical style is seldom suitable for modern towns with their emphasis on multiple use and their need to allow for slow organic growth.

The South Bank exhibition thus fills the traditional exhibition role of nursery of new ideas in a particularly timely fashion, since the problems presented to its designers, especially the small size of the site, reflected many of the problems that constantly confront architects and planners in this overcrowded island: how to give a feeling of space while economizing in the use of space; how to achieve a compact urban character while avoiding congestion-visual and actual; how to weld the ideas of many architects into a whole without stifling originality or imposing uniformity; how to marry the new with the old so that one does not harm the other but, on the contrary, so that the qualities of each enhance the other.

These problems occur with special frequency in that most difficult but at the same time most exciting of all post-war architectural tasks, the building of the new towns. In fact the South Bank exhibition can itself be regarded as a new town. It is a temporary town (or, more precisely, the non-residential quarter of a town) deposited on the banks of the Thames where all can learn the lessons it contains and appreciate the ideas it contributes.

But though the planning of the South Bank is revolutionary so far as exhibitions are concerned, the planning principle it represents is by no means new. It is only new in its urban application. It is well known in landscape planning and was the basis of the Picturesque theory of landscaping which British gardeners developed in the eighteenth century. This theory, now recognized as one of Britain’s major contributions to European art, demanded that the latent possibilities of any site should be exploited to the full in order to produce a layout with a character peculiar to that site alone. It thus opposed the renaissance theory of superimposing a new character by the use of rigid geometrical forms. The Picturesque landscape was as irregular, as rich in surprises, as skilful in the use of the happy accident as nature herself. Indeed as far as England is concerned it recreated nature herself; for what are often taken for the natural beauties of the typical English countryside are in fact synthetic beauties largely derived from the Picturesque improvements of the eighteenth century.

English towns, unfortunately, had the benefit of no such improvements. When they outgrew the formality of the Georgian market square, their further growth took the form of a series of accidents, without any understood principles to turn them into happy accidents. In our highly urbanized civilization there is a clear need to add to the codes of hygienic and traffic engineering practice by which the shape of our towns is already controlled to some degree, an equivalent visual code of practice, if only to prevent all our towns becoming identical waves in an endless sea of bricks and mortar.

The plea has been made in the Architectural Review, and elsewhere, that this could be achieved if town-planners adopted a modern version of the Picturesque principles that were applied so successfully by country planners in the past. It has been suggested as a theory, but there has been but little opportunity of putting it into practice. At last an opportunity was offered by the South Bank exhibition site, where the Picturesque theory has been followed with triumphant results. That is the great contribution of the exhibition to contemporary architecture; it demonstrates how successfully the informal principle of town-planning, so well rooted in the English countryside, can be transplanted to the English urban landscape. It shows what rewards we may expect if we apply the same principles to the tasks with which our town builders are confronted today, especially the construction of new towns and the reconstruction of obsolete city centres.

Stand in the centre of the main concourse at the South Bank exhibition. Except for the difference that the architecture, being exhibition architecture, shows certain legitimate exaggerations of style and tricks of display which would not appear in permanent buildings, you might be in the main square of a modern town-but not a town that endeavours to exclude the humdrum world around and about it, of which it must always remain a part. At the end of the concourse is the River Thames, and beyond it the buildings of an older London. These are neither apologized for nor ignored in the planning of this foretaste of a new London. They are skilfully woven into the scene, so that historic and modern architecture serve as background and foreground respectively fn a succession of cunningly contrived compositions.

Here is the first example of Picturesque planning translated into urban terms. The existing buildings around the site, with their varying scales and silhouettes, take the place of the existing natural features on which the eighteenth-century landscapists based their designs. The Palace of Westminster and Whitehall Court are the rock-strewn hill and the well-placed clump of trees towards which the spectator’s eye was subtly directed and against which artificial features in the foreground were set. The Thames is the natural lake, tamed to serve the landscape gardener’s purpose. And in the arrangement of the exhibition buildings themselves is the same carefully contrived alternation of concealments and disclosures that gave the eighteenth-century picturesque landscape its elusive charm.

If the great triumph of the exhibition is its general layout, contrived with so much imagination by Hugh Casson and his colleagues on the Presentation Panel, special credit must also go to H. T. Cadbury-Brown for his detailed landscaping of the main upstream area, to Peter Shepheard for landscaping and garden design downstream, and to the many architects - who have made brilliant use of the many other devices traditional to the landscape designer: water to provide an invisible but effective barrier; changes of surface underfoot to point the difference between a courtyard and a thoroughfare; changes of level; contrasts between apparent enclosure and a sudden glimpse of far distance. To these are added equivalent devices applicable only in an urban context. All are contrived for the benefit of the moving, not the stationary, spectator.

It is obviously impossible, even by devoting a whole issue of the Review to illustrating the exhibition, to record everything of note in it, representing as it does the work of some dozens of architects over a couple of years. It has therefore been thought best, in this special issue, to concentrate on those aspects of the exhibition that have most to contribute to the progress of modern architecture and town-planning. These, in the opinion of the Editors, as the observations above explain, lie within the province of landscape planning.

This issue therefore begins with a tour in photographs and drawings in which the points of three-dimensional planning are illustrated, and further analysed in a running commentary.

But the lessons contemporary planners can learn from the exhibition are not confined to broad questions of layout and landscaping. In the long run the quality of a planner’s efforts depends just as much on the way his principles are put into practice, on neatness of finish and character of detail. In this respect, too, the South Bank exhibition sets a remarkably high standard and is rich in lessons for the city architect and municipal engineer. The second section of this issue therefore takes the form of a pattern-book in which aptly designed details are collected together from all parts of the exhibition under various headings, chosen to indicate either the problems well-thought-out details can help to solve (such as how to guide pedestrians in the right direction without unsightly railings) or the actual objects that most need the designer’s attention (such as lettering and street furniture).

The architecture of the exhibition buildings must also be put on record, so that its influence can remain after they have been cleared away, and a third section of the issue briefly illustrates the principal buildings with plans and exterior and interior photographs. But though the buildings are temporary, they are to be followed by some form of permanent building development. So successful are some of the ideas that have been tried out on the South Bank that a strong case can be made out for incorporating them in the permanent development of the area.

In a final section of the issue Gordon Cullen makes his own choice of the exhibition features he would like to see preserved and depicts them in a possible future permanent setting. Charity begins at home, and if the South Bank exhibition of 1951 is to go down in history, as seems likely, as the fountain-head of a new style of urban development, it will be appropriate if some of its lessons are applied to the task of giving new dignity and vitality on a permanent basis to the part of London it at present occupies.

In apportioning credit among the many designers responsible for the outstanding qualities of the exhibition as outlined above, mention must first of course be made of those members of the Presentation Panel who controlled both architecture and display from the beginning under the chairmanship of Gerald Barry, director-general of the Festival. They were Hugh Casson, director of architecture to the Festival, Misha Black, lames Gardner, lames Holland and Ralph Tubbs.

They worked under the general guidance of the Council for Architecture, Town Planning and Building Research, one of the two advisory councils (the other dealt with science) set up by the Government when the Festival was first planned. The members were H.V. Lobb (chairman), H.V.A. Briscoe, F. J. Forty, W. G. Holford, Robert Matthew, Rowland Nicholas, Sir George Pepler, J. M. Richards and Howard Robertson.

When construction on the South Bank site was under way, members of the Presentation Panel were appointed co-ordinating architects and display designers for different areas, as follows. Architects: downstream section, Hugh Casson; upstream section, Misha Black; area immediately round the Dome of Discovery, Ralph Tubbs. Display designers: downstream section, James Gardner; upstream section, lames Holland. H.V. Lobb was later appointed controller of construction for the whole site, being responsible for the progress of buildings and displays but not for their design.

H. T. Cadbury-Brown was architect for the main concourse and surrounding areas in the upstream section, and Peter Shepheard, landscape architect for the equivalent downstream areas. H. F. Clark was consultant landscape architect for the whole site, assisted by Peter Youngman and Marie Shephard. The names of the architects for the separate buildings are given where illustrations of the buildings occur on the following pages. The superintending engineers were Freeman, Fox and Partners in association with R. T. lames and Partners. The lighting consultant was L. C. Kalff.

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