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Sixty years on from the Festival of Britain – Alan Powers

Sixty years on from the Festival of Britain, the AR invites Alan Powers, to reconsider its role in shaping modern, post-war architecture

Alan Powers has championed mid-century architecture that developed softer, more decorative and romantic forms of modernism. Here he discusses how changing tides of taste have rehabilitated its values despite continuing adverse criticism.

It is received wisdom that the young architects in 1951 despised the Festival of Britain for its architecture. It was equated with the ‘Contemporary Style’, and an editorial on New Brutalism in Architectural Design in 1955 carried the epigraph, ‘When I hear the word “Contemporary” I reach for my revolver.’

The revolt is understandable. As Robert Maxwell wrote in 1972, ‘the style of the Festival of Britain seemed at best sentimental, at worst, effete. It lacked seriousness. It was bland, and it was parochial. Modern architecture had been sold short in Britain.’ Finding objectivity in this conflict is near impossible. The Festival was a conspicuous Aunt Sally, to the extent that it is now a shadowy spectre at which successive generations of students raised on Rayner Banham feel justified in throwing their projectiles.

Could we now make a case for ‘Contemporary’? Born not from the ‘New Empricism’ (AR June 1947), but rather from the parentage of Le Corbusier and Social Realism in the later 1930s, its exemplar could be the revered Finsbury Health Centre, with flash-gaps and varied textures prefiguring the Festival Hall. It is salutary to recall that in 1964, Ian Nairn wrote ‘the vocabulary which then seemed so up-to-date and witty now looks like surface affectation’.

Contemporary’s manifesto is not collected in any of the standard textbooks. Michael Ventris’s ‘Function and Arabesque’ in the first issue of Plan magazine in 1948 is probably the closest text, a reflection on returning from Sweden and Denmark. He didn’t swallow the clichés of 1940s Scandinavian architecture whole, but admitted that ‘with all its transitory absurdities, the romantic trend, most acute in Sweden, is a steady and inevitable one’.

Ventris saw the need for what he called ‘narrative function’ in order ‘to encourage people to live and amuse themselves in ways offering better visual possibilities; to plan plein-air eating places, traffic-less streets to exploit the recreational resources of the landscape’. He quoted articles by the COBRA group artist Asger Jorn that identified functionalism with Apollonian classicism, and the new form of modernism, identifiable to us as Contemporary, writing ‘to the classical schism of form and content as construction and ideology, and to the functionalist rationalisation of construction as ideology, he opposed the idea of spontaneous (surrealist) simultaneity; of construction and arabesque developing freely together without compromise’.

Contemporary was a mode of modernism whose maturing process was lost in the War years, its was a message that was heard again after the thunderstorms of New Brutalism had cleared, for the neo-modernism of the 1990s was essentially a revival of Contemporary, seldom possessing the wit and skill of the original. This does not of itself redeem Contemporary, although it suggests that we might be more cautious about throwing stones at it.

If Contemporary was trivial, populist and effeminate, did later experience show that the opposite qualities of serious, elitist and macho architecture were right for everyday functions of dwelling and shopping? The work of Eric Lyons for Span and the Norfolk council houses of Tayler & Green, with their intimate linkage of architecture, planting and landscaped spaces, challenged the certainties of New Brutalism that so comprehensively replaced them. Nikolaus Pevsner even used the words ‘Post Modern’ as early as 1962 to describe Tayler & Green’s terraced houses with decorative gable end walls.

Walk the short distance between Span’s Parkleys in Ham to the Langham House Close flats by Stirling and Gowan and you experience two worlds. Nairn called the first ‘a dream unrealised’, compared to the fulfilled dream of Parkleys. This is a simple rhetorical distinction, but the word ‘dream’ is significant, recalling the pre-war dream in Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal, in which he hopes that the awakening sleeper will work for a ‘possible world’: ‘Not of sleep-walkers, not of angry puppets.’

The opponents of Contemporary could display characteristics of both. One irony of the New Brutalist revolt is how close its leaders approached their adversary in their mature work: the Smithsons in elements of picturesque composition and natural setting, Stirling and Gowan with their respective use of colour, decoration, and historical allusion.

  • Throughout July the Southbank Centre will be hosting a number of events to mark the 60th Anniversary of the Festival of Britain, including discussions with Nicholas Grimshaw and Zaha Hadid. For more information visit www.southbankcentre.co.uk
  • Also on 22-23 July, Townscape; A Retrospective Symposium will be held at University College London. For more information contact www.uq.edu.au/atch/townscape/

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