Festival of Britain
By Hugh Casson, from Architect Etcetera Exhibition Catalogue, September 18th October 25th 1986, RIBA Heinz Gallery, London
A tonic to the nation. That at any rate is what Gerald Barry called it. (He as the man who thought up the idea of the Festival and rightly was given the job of running it). Certainly we all needed something to cheer us up. Behind us by now were the great reform programmes of the National and Labour governments. Yet Utopia seemed as far away as ever and the rationing of food, clothes and building materials was sharper-edged even than it had been during the war. We were ready for a party.
I joined them in
September 1948. There wont be any building, said Barry.
Its just keeping an architectural eye on things, but it looks
like being fun. Fun it certainly proved to be and not just for those
of us in the engine room. It was genuinely nationwide fun. All over the
country the Festival was celebrated in locally organised events of every
size and kind, bringing an unprecedented (for Britain) explosion in national
patronage of the arts opera, films, painting, poetry, sculpture
and crafts. A lot of people enjoyed themselves and it was all a great
success achieved against two preparatory years of almost universal
derision and hostility. The press, either snotty or abusive, was against
it throughout. The Establishment suspected it was all a smoke screen for
advancing Socialism. The Left decided it was middle-class; the academics
that it was populist; Evelyn Waugh that it was pathetic; Sir Thomas Beecham
said it was imbecile; Noel Coward said that it was not worth more than
a mild giggle. But Herbert Morrison and the Council stood firm and we
in the Festival Office were too busy to notice the brickbats
busy and enjoying ourselves too much.
While they were at work we could turn our attention to such supportive problems as the design and cost of fountains, attendants uniforms, food trolleys, sign-posting and catering, water-bus piers, lavatories and sculpture, tree-planting, flood lighting and invalid chairs. Those being recognisable as objects (existing or to be) were comparatively easy to deal with. But what is the likely cost of a veterinary surgeon (plus stand-by) for the live exhibits in the Agriculture Pavilion or of feeding and exercising the Husky dogs in the Arctic display? How much do you pay for a six foot long model of a mosquito? What is a fair fee for making a full size Viking ship, a statue of Tenniels White Knight, and where can you find the right person to do such work? (Virtually no art school talent was available in those days and we were over and over again to be rescued by versatility, skill and professionalism shown by graphic designers, illustrators, window display experts entrusted with such unfamiliar problems). Soon the design group seemed to be in continual session, discussions with architects, designers, specialists, sub-contractors and estimators. Regularly imposed financial cuts and the shortage of building materials, particularly timber, demanded frequent changes of design. The weather throughout was dreadful and there were plenty of strikes and minor building site disasters (one of the most serious because underestimated was the shortage of space towards the end when to the normal clutter of a busy building site was added the demand for room to unpack, place in position and remove the packing from the thousands of individual exhibits, as small as a tea-cup or as large as a six-wheel truck).
Soon after sunrise on the opening day I walked round the site with Mr Stokes, the Minister of Works. It was finished (or at least it looked it) and it looked splendid. Two hours later top-hatted for the opening ceremony I called in at the office to pick up any messages. There was only one. A roneod statement to the effect that my appointment ceased as from that morning.
Was it really a tonic or was it a tranquilliser? A true release of creative activity or another retreat into Britains familiar hidey-hole of nostalgia and whimsey? A bit of everything perhaps. Certainly it was a bit priggish. The organisation was it had to be professional rather than participatory. But is was not boastful or nationalistic; no one was taught to hate anybody. It provided a hint of the possible. There was nothing really new there but its use of spaces, its control of detail, its success in directing the individual skills of all those responsible towards a common aim, had lessons still unlearned for the future. There was no vandalism; everybody felt it was their show; they enjoyed it, respected it and modern architecture for a year or two afterwards walked tall a gait that was later on to prove disastrously conspicuous. But for the most people it was fun and probably the greatest fun of all was enjoyed by all of us who worked on it.