South Bank Adventure.

By Hugh Casson, transcribed in The Listener, May 17 1951

A cousin of mine, no more to be trusted so far as stories are concerned perhaps than most cousins, told me the other day that she had recently bought at her grocer’s a tin of potted meat. Printed on the lid was the instruction for opening. ‘Pierce with pin’, it said peremptorily, ‘and then push off’. Like, I suspect, many of my colleagues, I am feeling a little like that lid—pricked, deflated, abandoned. You can probably guess why. Since 1948 we in the Festival Office have worked together in trying to achieve something which we hoped would be more adventurous and novel than anything that had ever been attempted anywhere before. A few days ago it was finished. Now there is nothing ore for us to do but to follow the instructions and push off.

Whether in fact the results of our efforts are as exciting as we hoped they would be is for you to judge. But I should like to tell you a little about some of the problems we have met in putting it on.

First of all I want to make it clear that to mount an exhibition of this size is a team job in which many hundreds of people are concerned—architects and engineers, technicians and building workers in all trades, script writers and sculptors, typists and lorry drivers, scientists and painters, canteen cooks and gardeners and clerks. Between them they have managed to transform some twenty-seven acres of dilapidated wharves and derelict housing, for generations a disgrace to central London, into a New World. This is a technical achievement of which I think any nation cold feel proud. Site conditions were difficult; as you know, the weather has been the worst this country has known for eighty years; materials and labour have been scarce. But to these general difficulties must be added a host of other problems.

These problems—I speak only of architectural difficulties, and they are only a fraction of those which daily faced the Festival Office—showered upon us from the first day, way back in the autumn of 1948, when the theme of the Exhibition had been drafted and the South Bank site chosen. I have no quarrel with the site—on the contrary. It is a magnificent challenge to any designer. But it did have its disadvantages. It was small (only twenty-seven acres, you remember); it was cut in half by a railway bridge and a public right of way; it had only got one tree. There were existing tenants whose leases did not expire till 1951 and much of the area had already been promised to contractors at work on the new River Wall and Royal Festival Hall.

So, as you can probably imagine, there was lots to do before we could even start on the drawing board. Weeks were spent negotiating with the authorities concerned—among them the London County Council, the Port of London Authority, British Railways, the police and various Government departments—so it was not until Christmas 1948 that the first plan of the exhibition was really ready for discussion.

This plan was prepared by a group of five architects and designers. We used to meet in an attic bedroom of a requisitioned house off Sloane Street. Here, huddled in overcoats (for the heating was erratic) we sat hour after hour while the tracing paper piled about our knees, trying to devise a plan which would ensure well-arranged circulation and points of access, well-distributed restaurant, lavatory and exhibition services and, most important of all, would achieve a lay-out of pavilions which was both efficient and exciting to the eye. Wherever possible we would escape form the office to wander over the site—still little more in those days than a desert of rubble, above which concrete mixers ground their clattering teeth. I used to prefer going in the evening when there was nobody about but a stray cat and the old watchman with his gammy leg. (I saw him there still a week or two ago—like the Shot Tower and the railway bridge and the river, and old friend from the past.) It was quiet then on those evening strolls. No sound except the occasional rumble of the Waterloo Tube, the hoot of a tug, or the faint metallic clink from the cooling engine of a parked lorry.

It was during these quiet walks that we tried to picture the site as it could be, to think out how to make the best use of the space, where to change the levels. (By nature the site is as flat and featureless as a peppermint cream.) What structures to keep—perhaps an old barge dock or an arcade of bridge vaults—and finally, very important this, trying to choose which parts of the surrounding London should be tactfully veiled, and which could be dramatically revealed. Such decisions had often to be altered to meet unexpected circumstances. An experimental structure could prove unworkable or too expensive. Room would have to be found unexpectedly of a new exciting and enormously bulky exhibit. The road excavators would strike an obstacle too expensive and time-wasting to remove. You will find one of these, by the way, at the foot of the old Shot Tower—an old crane track as strong as a medieval battlement and we have used it as a part of the boat dock display. But by and large the South Bank Exhibition looks today, for good or ill, much the same as we originally conceived it, a carefully composed series of open and closed spaces through which the visitor moves, his eye constantly stimulated by changing view points. As he walks around he will, we hope, enjoy himself. He will not notice (at least we hope he will not) that he is treading on a battlefield.

For those of us who have worked upon this project every square yard of these twenty-seven acres is heavy with history. This manhole conceals an underground reservoir—needed because somebody, thank goodness, suddenly remembered we might this summer have a drought and, as usual, an official ban on the watering of gardens. The Thames, remember, is still salt at the South Bank and no good for flowers. This patch in the road—perceptible only to the anguished eye of the architect—is where a water main burst a few days before the opening and bubbled disarmingly across the green fairway. That light patch of paint marks the scar left by a rouge lorry: those flowerbeds placed with such apparently casual charm, in fact are elaborately arranged to conceal and ill-considered corner.

Office Problems
Back in the office meanwhile the questions multiplied. Would fantail pigeons next happily in the Shot Tower? How many litter bins were wanted? What depth of water was needed at the pier heads? Could we find room for a mandolin made of matches? (Yes, to this one.) Which sculptors could we recommend to depict a starving boy, a Roman chariot, the Spirit of Discovery, or Florence Nightingale? Sometimes we were cheered by an unusual letter, such as that from an enterprising manufacturer in the Midlands who asked whether space could be devoted to a discreet display of his coffin fittings and shrouds, or from a friend of a widow in North London whose house, we were told, was a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of Beauty composed of hand-painted lampshades, of which, said the writer, we would obviously be in need of great numbers. There were plenty of callers, too, journalists, cranks, salesmen, hopeful painters with portfolios of drawings, architectural students—even one day, I remember a young poetess, who asked for permission to sit at the foot of the Shot Tower for a day in search of inspiration. Life was more leisurely for us in 1949 and we were able to grant this request. Our Clerk of Works looked after he and plied her with endless cups of mahogany coloured tea, but I am sorry to say that we have not yet seen the poem.
Month by month the buildings grew in their tangle of scaffolding, each one designed by a different architect, each with his own or its own particular problem. Most of these buildings, remember, are very unorthodox both in appearance and in method of construction, but this is as it should b. Exhibitions have always been the nursery of new ideas. They are the architect’s laboratory, where his experiments are carried out. But experiments, however desirable, have their drawbacks. You cannot be sure they will succeed, and when mounting an exhibition there is never much time to replace a failure. For an exhibition designer time—as Hemingway tells us, is the least thing we have of.

Difficulties of Smallness
But looking back, I think perhaps the most complicated of all the problems with which our architects and engineers have had to contend were those which arose from the smallness of the site. Space was so short that every step had to be carefully planned well in advance. Cranes and concrete mixers, canteens and first-aid huts, dumps of sand and drainpipes, all had to be placed where they would be least in the way for the longest time. Ornamental lake, once built, were used as stores or temporarily roofed to serve as workshops. Contractors’ huts had to be shifted here and there as work progressed, even being hoisted for a time on to a vacant flat roof, and reached only by ladder. Lorry routes had to be charted in advance to avoid the network of trenches being dug for the underground services—and what a network ! —sewers, gas, water, electricity, telephones, fire alarms, crowd control cables, radio and television lines.

As the months went by the pace quickened, the site became still more congested. Exhibits began to arrive—there were some ten thousand of these. Whether it is an ashtray or a pedigree bull, a cricket bat or a monster telescope, a railway engine or a sofa cushion, it has to be chose, labelled, catalogued, and put in its right place. This was the period—so familiar to all exhibition designers—when the little daily disasters occur and multiply as the fatal day of opening approaches. The rats which gnawed at the telephone cables; the roofs leaking over valuable exhibits; the statue which was fixed (to the horror of the sculptor) facing, it seems, the wrong way; the mouse’s next discovered in the mane of the stuffed lion; the underwater lighting point that leaked; the refrigerating plant which suddenly began to disgorge more water than its drain could carry; the sparrows that stripped the bark from the young bamboos; the piece of glass, shaped, engraved and polished over many weeks, which broke when lifted for the final dusting; the tree, alas, that died.

But I will say no more of these or you will spend your visit looking—like architects—for nothing but the ill-concealed mistake. Lots of things went wrong, but quite a lot of things went right as well—or at least went the way we sent them. As I say it has been an adventurous journey, not unlike the famous voyage described by Edward Lear and commanded by Quangle-Wangle. So many of the events and encounters are the same. Those characters (do you remember?) who were perpetually and so unsuccessfully disentangling vast heaps of knotted worsted, and the bluebottles who discoursed in a genteel manner with a slightly buzzing accent. We could all, I think, put a name to them. And the Co-operative Cauliflower, so helpful to start with, who suddenly and unpredictably stalked angrily off into the sunset—so exactly like—well, never mind who. And when the voyage was done the travellers, tired and a little pleased with themselves, were received upon their return with joy and contempt. Well, whether your verdict on our work is joyful or contemptuous, remains to be seen, but of one thing I can be sure: that if you enjoy the South Bank Exhibition half as much as we have enjoyed the experience of mounting it, then you will enjoy it very much indeed.