By continuing to use the site you agree to our Privacy & Cookies policy

Your browser seems to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser.


Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.


1951 August: The Exhibition as Landscape

The Exhibition as Landscape takes on the form of an illustrated tour of the 1951 exhibition. The article discusses and analyses the broader visual effects resulting from the application of the principles of the Picturesque to the new town layout of the South Bank

On the following pages the reader is taken for a tour round the South Bank exhibition in search of the subtleties of landscape planning that give it so much of its distinction, but whose full significance is not necessarily apparent at the first glance. For in town planning much of the art lies in concealing conscious intention-in contriving the happy accident-and it is as a highly successful exercise in the art of the town-planner that the exhibition should first of all be regarded.

It makes a real contribution to town-planning technique, and as the visitor walks round it, with its thematic story unfolding before him, he might well be exploring a subtly designed town. He is led from point to point and his interest is continually renewed by the skilful use of the devices the town-designer, as well as the exhibition architect, exploits-or should exploit-in order to heighten vitality and underline the personality derived from the nature of his site: expectation and suspense, the relaxation provided by the quiet enclosure, the shock of the surprising view, the contrast of the familiar with the unexpected, changes of level, tempo and scale.

These are all employed in the exhibition, both indoors and out, and are analysed on the following pages with an eye on their permanent application in town building. The itinerary followed in this tour of the exhibition in its guise of a newly planned section of London conforms roughly to the sequence in which the exhibition buildings are officially supposed to be visited. It is shown by the coloured arrow on the map of the exhibition below.

Inside the Chicheley Street entrance you are in a different world from London, but not in one of those formal layouts that generally accompany the architecture of display. You might be in a permanent town, a town designed to satisfy the multiple needs of daily life yet with an eye for all the incidental effects that the informal type of planning allows and that add so much to the vitality of the whole: changes of scale and texture; unexpected contrasts between the hard geometry of buildings and natural greenery; movement and mystery and the gradually unfolding view.

Consider the entrance courtyard-the Fairway, 8-as a small-town piazza, planned for pedestrians only. The multi-coloured screen on the York Road side, A in the sketch above, might be the façade of an office building or department store. At its foot is a recessed sidewalk, B, somewhat raised, serving a terrace of shops, and in front a row of little kiosks, poised over pools of water whose reflections add more sparkle to the scene. The building at the end, E, also has a recessed lower storey, suggesting that the pedestrian will find the barrier there not final.

Between them, in the corner, is a small cafe, enclosed within transparent walls and extended in the form of an open terrace only separated from the pavement of the piazza by knee-high boxes of flowers-an agreeable adjunct to any town square. Liveliness is given to the other side of the piazza by a naturalistic garden, D, sunk a little way below it and protected by an elegant railing, C. There is a shallow stream, boulders, rank grasses and an occasional scrubby bush-a perfect foil (see sketch at foot of page) to the determined urbanity of the piazza. The garden is meant to be enjoyed as decoration, not physically experienced.

Beyond the garden rises the Countryside building, 9 on facing page, which is open to the air, and the pedestrian in the piazza looks into it, as he might into a covered market. In fact, it is a display of agricultural machinery. The eye is made to focus in turn on the wall paintings at the back, the moving machines in the centre and the implements in the foreground, with the result that the apparent width of the piazza is extended by the depth of this building. Another cafe terrace, half indoors and half out, overhangs the garden, 11. Further along, where the end of the adjoining building, the Land of Britain, breaks into the piazza in the form of rough stone walls, what might have been a dull passage in the design is imaginatively used to provide a kind of vertical garden in a minimum of space, a garden of roughly formed crags and boulders, 12, contrasting agreeably with the smooth chequered pavement.

As in a well-planned town, the exhibition makes the most of the space available by not disclosing itself all at one glance. By breaking it up into a sequence of enclosures the planners have greatly increased its apparent size. This particular enclosure, the Fairway, is planned with a fine sense of drama, because (see sketch plan above) only as you approach the far end do you become aware of the relatively narrow exit, 13. You turn the corner of the wall occupying the foreground of 10, the sense of enclosure being retained to the last. Then, with a shock of surprise, you find yourself on the brink of a vast territory, 14. It extends away before you, drops to a lower level, takes in the white plumes of the fountains and proceeds uninterrupted to the romantic outline of Whitehall Court, which is in fact on the far side of the river, but so skilfully are the levels managed that the river itself is not yet seen and its whole width is brought into the apparent area of the exhibition. You are now at the head of the main concourse, the limits of which are defined on either flank by the long glass façade of the Transport building and the rising curve of the Dome of Discovery. Above the entire scene the Skylon is poised as a dramatic punctuation mark.

The upper platform of the main concourse, 16, is flanked by coneshaped aluminium porticoes, leading into the two main sequences of exhibition buildings. Into the left-hand one, 17-the entrance to the Land of Britain-the itinerary now takes you. Entering a sort of cave-mouth between rough stone walls set into a boulder-strewn hillside, you are swallowed up in a sequence of dimly lit chambers depicting the geological evolution of the British Isles. At the far end you are released into the Natural Scene, a brightly lit space (in contrast to the darkness of the other) dramatically rising in height and filled with the cries and whistles of birds. In the centre is a massive, twisted plaster tree, round which (see drawing above) runs a robust wooden gallery of ramps and steps, making spatial play in a limited area. The gallery is asymmetrical and creates a changing perspective from level to level. At the foot of the tree, 18, is an irregular woodland garden of leaves and wild flowers. And water, the most versatile element in the exhibition vernacular, lies in quiet sandy pools.

Climbing upwards and obtaining an impression of liveliness and flexibility of plan from the sight of other visitors crossing your path below and above you, as you and they circulate among the ramps and staircases, you eventually emerge on the upper level of the Countryside building into a long gallery devoted to crops and produce. At this point; and at many points afterwards, another speciality of the exhibition plan becomes apparent: the effectiveness of the frequent panoramic views, framed within the interior structure of the buildings, that are contrived so as to furnish unexpected but well-composed pictures of the bright outdoor world. They occur at all levels. 20, for example, allows you a glance back across the centre of the concourse through the escape doors at the end of the first floor produce gallery you have just reached.

A subtle variation of the same theme is performed along the whole side wall of the same gallery, which is glazed to show a wide panorama of the Dome of Discovery, but partially obscured again (sketch below) by growing plants in the foreground and vertical canvas louvres outside the glazing, so that the view recedes into the distance and becomes a kind of two-dimensional drop-scene. By way of contrast, the next viewingpoint brings you to close-quarters again with the open air: 21, from the platform reached from the far end of the same gallery. Here you look down into the piazza in which your tour began and are reminded that one side of it was formed by an open hall, in an upper gallery of which you are now standing. The unexpected presentation of a familiar scene from a different viewpoint is one of the most effective tricks of the town-planner’s trade.

From this level you descend again, and continue your way through the lower portion of the Countryside building into the Minerals building, where you are plunged once more into a sequence of cave-like galleries, lighted only by the displays themselves. These terminate in a staircase, 19, from which you emerge through the side of the pyramidal Minerals building on to a lightly constructed footbridge, 20 feet above the ground, presenting another dramatic view across the upstream half of the exhibition site. You cross the footbridge into the Power and Production building, but instead of leaving the view just revealed to you you find it again, 22, framed in a tall window. The route now lies along an internal gallery from which you look into a machine hall below, and then down into a second hall, in which machine products are displayed, at the far end of which is another tall window giving a ground level view, 23, over a new quarter of the exhibition.

Here you are introduced to a fresh aspect of the exhibition plan. Hitherto you have been exploring a closed world, sufficient to itself. Only for a moment, when looking down the length of the concourse, were you aware of an older London in the shape of a distant romantic skyline. Now you are brought close up to it-or rather it (the panorama of London) is brought close up to you. You are reminded that this newly laid out town is part of a larger city, with which it shares a busy river highway.

The exhibition planners have made magnificent use of a site in the geographical heart of London from which, among other groups of famous buildings, the towers of the Palace of Westminster make a better composed group than from any other viewpoint. These have been skilfully woven into the exhibition scene. They can be admired in the open, as in 24, a view from the terrace of the ‘51 Bar, or framed by exhibition architecture as in the sketch above, where they are seen beneath the projecting wing of the riverside Sea and Ships building.

The Sea and Ships building, 25, 26, 27, sums up in miniature the multilevel internal-external type of planning in which the exhibition specializes. Strung along the river front, a sequence of galleries, ramps and staircases leads you in and out among the exhibits-model ships and full-size parts of ships; marine objects of all kinds; diving gear and fishing gear-sometimes spanning over pools of water, sometimes under cover and sometimes in the open air (the coloured areas in the sketch plan above are those which are roofed over). The visitor views them from all levels and at the same time sees, as an appropriate background to them, the busy life on the river itself and hears the sound of breaking waves simulated by the mobile water-sculpture that stands in front.

On leaving the Sea and Ships display you turn your back on the river, descending from the riverside promenade to the lower level of the main concourse. The exhibition regains its identity as a self-contained town. The concourse becomes the intersection of two main avenues. Trees line the sidewalks and offer a flickering view across the street. The Transport building, 28, becomes a department store which uses its whole façade as a show window of impressive depth owing to the transparency of its external wall. Kiosks and flower tubs divide and so extend the foreground. A bus is parked in a side street, and under a railway bridge a brightly coloured mural startles the spectator who thought that painting belonged exclusively to the city art gallery. A truncated Concert Hall looms mysteriously above the bridge.

Beyond the intersection another piazza opens out, a few feet higher here again trees alternately obscure and reveal. The high flung arch of the Waterloo Station Gate, 29, with its prominent viewing galleries, provides an imposing contrast to the level forecourt. It has no end walls, being open to the air, so that the sky is seen through as well as above it. In a corner of the piazza, an open cafe is perched on a raised terrace, 30. The slight change of level, allied with a little planting, is sufficient demarcation between the pavement and the cafe terrace, which disappears beneath its lightly supported slab roof to become a two-level cafe-bar cleverly contrived underneath the arches of the railway viaduct that bisects the exhibition site.

In the background of the same picture, 30, is a disappearing wall in a rather different sense: a mural painting used not only as decoration but to break down the apparent solidity of a flat wall and give spatial complexity to an arrangement of basically simple architectural elements.

From this upper platform of the main concourse, there begins the second stage of the exhibition itinerary, by way of another cone-shaped aluminium portico, seen in 29, and then a footbridge, 31 and 33, which carries you over a shallow pool of water into the dark recesses of the railway arches. Before emerging into the downstream half of the exhibition you pass through the galleries depicting the story of the People of Britain, ingeniously planned on several levels so that the circulating streams of visitors pass over and under each other, 32 and 34, contriving a number of surprising spatial effects in a confined area, as when they come upon a jungle garden spread out beneath their feet, 32, and meet it again at eye level a little while later. An impression of this two-level planting is given in the sketches on the previous page, and at the top of the facing page is a diagram showing the circulation within the People of Britain galleries.

Half-way round the sequence of galleries the wall dissolves and you are taken by surprise by another view of the main concourse, 35, which you seemed long ago to have left behind. It is seen not only framed, as in the photograph, by the gallery posts and railings, but also partly obscured, as in the sketch immediately below, by a louvred screen through which the familiar view is given a new character by being separated into thin slices. This is a horizontal counterpart of the vertically fragmented view from the upper gallery of the Countryside building.

A little further along, at the corner of the building, is a break-away into a cafe. It is planned with exceptional cunning. The one-way circulation of the exhibition requires-and is provided with-occasional escape routes, so that the visitor does not feel too strictly regimented; or so that the window-shopper, if this were a pedestrian shopping arcade in a new town-as a building so planned well might be-can slip away as soon as he is bored or fatigued.

As you approach the corner of the People of Britain building, therefore, before turning to make the final passage underneath the railway, you are invited, but not too forcibly diverted from your tour of the exhibits, by an open concrete grille beside a doorway, 37, leading into a paved passage. On turning through the doorway a boldly lettered arrow points the way to a side entrance to the same vaulted cafe-the Turntable cafe, 36, that you inspected previously from the concourse. This side entrance is so ingeniously planned (see diagram below) and the doorway from the People of Britain so discreetly masked, that no one in the main concourse is aware of it and there is no tendency for the visitor unwittingly to enter the sequence of display in the People of Britain at a half-way point. Without any physical barrier the one-way traffic is maintained.

Continuing the tour you plunge beneath the railway, emerging from the darkness the other side into the open air and the downstream half of the exhibition. Once more you step into what might be the busy market-square, 39 (overleaf), of a real town. There is another enclosed piazza- though not so completely enclosed as the Fairway. The architecture here is rather different in scale. It is quiet, intimate and a little formal, in contrast to the more aggressive exhibitionism of the upstream architecture. This difference between the two halves of the exhibition not only underlines the difference of theme, but produces a pleasantly varied character very different from the insistent clamour for attention, never letting up for a moment, which characterizes most exhibitions and many town centres.

You enter the piazza through the pillared lower storey of the television building. On your left, raised on a low platform, is the calm, dignified façade, discreetly monumental, of the Lion and Unicorn building, 38, as it might be some small public building commanding the town square. On your right, the far side of the piazza is closed by the Telekinema and the narrow exit beyond the television building, 40, suggests a street ready to lead you away into other quarters of the town. Facing you is the variegated façade of the Homes and Gardens building.

The piazza provides for several different uses: for normal pedestrian traffic, for more leisurely promenading, for sitting in the sun, 41, and (a little in the background) for eating and drinking out of doors, since the fourth side of the square (see sketch plan below), partially closed by the Lion and Unicorn building, is also bounded by an informally planted garden containing the Unicorn café, 43.

Here and elsewhere in the piazza the designers have made skilful play with a number of the many devices that are the town-builder’s disposal in his task of giving character and vitality to the urban scene: minor changes of level, 40; informal planting, 40 and 41, to provide a foil to steps and paving and screen off a garded area for rest and reflection; the invisible wall, 42, beneath which the exterior paving is carried into the building, making the closest possible visual connection between inside and outside.

In the Unicorn café, 43, exemplary use is made of a number of other devices whose use the town-builder has taken over the landscape gardener. At C in the sketch below, water not only adds liveliness to the garden layout through its changing surface and its reflections of the sky, but provides the perfect barrier, defining the limit of the café area without interrupting the view. Nor railing is required; only a low stone kerb, B, with which the rough boulders bounding the water garden on the other side, D, make an agreeable contrast. The hanging umbrellas, A, likewise obstruct the view as little as possible, while providing the necessary shelter. They indicate the location of the café for a distance, and give the flat garden an interesting skyline. Their rounded forms and strong colours make a lively contrast with the wiry shapes of the white-painted furniture.

The colour-scheme of the piazza shows evidence of the most careful study and the walls of the buildings (like the floor of the piazza) are rich in texture. The upper wall of the television building is plastered in sky blue, with large letters in yellow; the quilted wall of the Telekinema is earth brown, and the introductory pavilion to the Homes and Gardens building carries canvas panels broken into triangles of pale green, black and chocolate brown. These clear colours are relieved by the grey texture of the flint gable wall of the same Homes and Gardens pavilion, by the brownish brickwork of the main Homes and Gardens building and by the vertical white lines of arises, columns and flagpoles. The main view riverwards from the piazza passes between the formal planting in front of Homes and Gardens on the one hand and the irregular café garden on the other, to find a climax in the old shot-tower, a striking study in planned landscape.

On a smaller scale an even more striking bit of planning is the entrance to the Homes and Gardens building illustrated in the series of pictures on the left and in the sketch plan immediately below, on which the photographic viewpoints are marked. It is another instance of the concealed opening used on a larger scale in the Fairway piazza in the upstream section, for as you move from the piazza towards the portico formed beneath the superstructure of the introductory pavilion, 44, you are confronted, in despite of the invitation extended by the bold inscription, not with a doorway but with a blank wall, 45, given some degree of formality by a piece of sculpture centred on it. As you move forward there is a sense of gathering confinement, which is suddenly dispelled a few paces further on by an unexpected view to the left, 46, across a lawn, a sunken pool, a sculptured figure and the distant shot-tower- a playback, as it were, of the view you have lately left. The foreground is unobstructed, but the slightly raised level of the lawn is sufficient to deter you from straying in this direction.

As you approach nearer the blank wall, 47, you are enclosed again on both sides, and partly roofed in by a geranium-decked trellis, throwing a pattern of shadows on the pavement. An opening now reveals itself in the left-hand corner which, approached more nearly, 48, reveals itself as a double exit, straight on down a ramp- a break-away into another courtyard- or sharp left into the comparative darkness of the interior of the building.

The Homes and Gardens building lives up to the second part of its name by assiduously introducing the garden indoors and providing views of outdoor greenery. 49 (facing page), flower boxes protect a plate-glass window beyond which is a children’s garden and another courtyard with its partially concealed bandstand. 50, a planted window-cill, and beyond it still another view of the piazza you have recently left. 51, a miniature formal garden, displaying a variety of floor textures. It is slightly sunk below the roadway outside, giving quite a new aspect to the half-seen exhibition concourse beyond. 52, another formal garden with a garden terrace in the background, showing the decorative value in an urban setting of minute quantities of planting when combined with a well-chosen variety of materials and textures.

At the far end of the Homes and Gardens building is another unexpected view, 53, through a glass screen whose vertical plane is decisively marked by a display of pottery and glassware in front of it, to the mysterious back courtyard already glimpsed in 49. In the near corner of the courtyard is a cafe (seen more clearly in 57) and beyond it a bandstand-an exhibition side-show casually revealed. Beyond that again is a busy background of boundary screen and flagpoles.

You emerge from Homes and Gardens into the main concourse of the downstream section, 55, dominated by the steel and glass observation tower that marks the Waterloo Gate. The entrance platforms (B in the sketch at bottom of page) at its foot extract plenty of drama from floating roof-slabs and cantilevered galleries and the deep shadows cast beneath them. From one of the half-landings a narrow footbridge, A, springs right across the concourse and boating-pool to provide a direct link between the Waterloo entrance and the Royal Festival Hall, to which it gives access at terrace level. Within the land arches of Waterloo Bridge, C, are the entrances to the Schools and Health displays, where an intriguing sense is given of being both indoors and out.

The wide roadways of the concourse are relieved by flowers and sculpture, 58, and from it a paved street, 56, runs down to the river between the boating-pool on one side and a raised cafe terrace on the other. There are glimpses of the river hereabouts, but this stretch of the river front (where the north bank panorama opposite is at its dullest) has been deliberately closed off by the semitransparent Sports display, 54, adding an element of mystery to the riverside treatment, using suspense and surprise as foils to the open display of riverside scenery encountered elsewhere. 54 is taken from the cast-iron and concrete gallery containing the 1851 memorial exhibit. This is closely linked to the shot-tower, and they jointly provide a high focal point in the centre of this irregularly planned area as the sketch on page 99 indicates.

On approaching the river the itinerary takes you round to the right, behind the Thames-side restaurant with its pretty undulating roof and underneath the first land arch of Waterloo Bridge. It then brings you out on to a terrace (in the top left-hand corner of the plan below), and confronts you with a new and surprising aspect of this magnificent riverside site: the view down-river, 59 and 62, entirely different in character from the up-river view you admired from the Sea and Ships building and the terrace of the ‘51 Bar.

On the right is working London, a tangle of grimy jetties, cranes and warehouses rising picturesquely from the foreshore mud. Beyond them is the wide sweep of the river as it curves away towards the south and beyond that the skyline of the city crowned by the dome of St. Paul’s. An exhilarating view and a perfect platform from which to admire it, near enough to the water to feel its coolness in the air, a thing a Londoner can rarely do in spite of the fact that his city has grown up along the river.

The Thames-side restaurant is equally well-sited to provide the same experience. It is worth entering first of all by the down-river entrance to observe, in the entrance vestibule, the clerestory windows, 60, past which you are surprised to see walking foot-passengers on Waterloo Bridge, outside the exhibition grounds altogether- a landscape view at an unexpected level. But you must return thence, through one of the openings in the glass screen that forms the river wall of the restaurant, on to the narrow board-walk outside, which follows the curve of the restaurant the full length of its river front. This board-walk, 61 and 63, has a row of tables along its outer edge and thus combines the functions of open-air cafe and river promenade. It has nautical-style railings, a red and white striped awning for shelter and a boarded floor with open joints through which the movement of the water can be seen beneath your feet, giving a wonderful feeling of the immediacy of the river.

The board-walk, like the restaurant, passes beneath Waterloo Bridge, after which the downstream view, 63, is exchanged for the upstream view, 64. In the background is the serrated skyline of Whitehall Court, already familiar as the climax of the upstream concourse. The boardwalk terminates in a staircase, 65, leading up to a viewing deck from which a new waterfront panorama is obtained. The staircase, cantilevered out over the river wall, gives the visitor a remarkable sensation of being swung for a moment, as it were, right outside the exhibition, an effect enhanced by the open risers through which the exterior face of the river wall, as well as the river itself, can be seen.

Up-river from this viewing-deck, as far as Hungerford railway bridge, is another stretch of riverside promenade behind which rise the terraces of the permanent Royal Festival Hall (see sketch plan at top of page). Suspended above it, and overhanging the river wall, are look-out platforms, 66 (facing page) and 68, smartly painted and beflagged, and designed with all the economy of means and forthrightness of effect traditional to nautical engineering. Their function is to enable a visitor who climbs the double flight of stairs to feel isolated for a moment from the bustle of life on land. They are a spirited addition to London’s riverside amenities which, like the Thames-side restaurant and board-walk, might well be preserved after the exhibition closes.

Along the inland side of the promenade stretches a continuous awning, providing a parallel promenade under cover, and a pleasant area of shadow to contrast with the brightness and sparkle of the rest. It accommodates various outdoor displays evocative of seaside life and leisure. With its freely planned kiosks and entertainments it might, indeed, be the water front of a river or seaside resort. It can be seen in the background of 69, and 67 is taken from underneath it. In the centre of 67 is the base of one of the masts which, by a system of cables and counterweights, hold up both the awning itself and the look-out platforms illustrated on the facing page.

At the up-river end of the promenade, as you emerge from the shelter of the awning, there is a view, 70, up a service side street, alongside the flank of the Royal Festival Hall, the terrace of which forms a side-walk at a higher level. You then pass beneath the railway bridge, 71, on to the upstream promenade, meeting again the distant view of the towers of Westminster, framed this time by the terraces of the Regatta restaurant.

This three-storey restaurant combines with its own system of open terraces, the terraces and staircases required to receive visitors who approach the exhibition across the Bailey footbridge specially built over the Thames alongside Hungerford Bridge. They arrive at a high level and are brought down to the riverside promenade (and thence to the main course), on the landward flank of the restaurant, 73. The opportunity is used to create an intricate composition of platforms and staircases which frame both river and exhibition views. In the middle is a garden, 75 and 76, designed to be seen from the various surrounding levels, and alongside it an overhanging wing of the restaurant, 74, shelters an outdoor bar (see sketch plan below), with sitting space incorporated in the garden.

The design of this garden and the terraces around it is an object-lesson in the intelligent use of many of the landscape devices which this exhibition so aptly demonstrates for the benefit of the future town-builder. SeveraI of them are illustrated in 76: the low flower boxes (D in the sketch above) to rail off the sitting area without the need for obstructions at eye-level; sculpture, water and greenery arranged in an informal way, C, to give variety of texture and set off the rigid lines of the architecture; variety of levels, B, to provide the unexpected view; transparency of structure, A, to take full advantage of the lively prospect across the river. This river view, the climax of the exhibition, to which the visitor’s eyes are continually encouraged to return, is seen best of all from the upper terrace of the restaurant, 77 (overleaf), where the panorama of London buildings constitutes an older counterpart to the buildings of the temporary new town on the South Bank-a permanent North Bank exhibition.

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment.