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 won’t be any building’, said Barry. ‘It’s 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… to busy and enjoying ourselves too much.
Although the Design Group (which consisted of Misha Black, Ralph Tubbs, James Holland, James Gardner and myself) had to keep a visual watch over all the major Festival events, our attention had to be concentrated on the South Bank Exhibition – 27 acres of treeless and derelict mud-flats, split in half by a railway bridge but bang in the centre of London and commanding splendid views of the river’s curve. The theme we were given was British Achievement in the Arts, Science and Industry. We were joined by an army of 27 architects – together with engineers, landscape designers, sculptors, painters, and script writers – all comparatively young and inexperienced. We had to work hard and fast and we did. We were given the site in the autumn of 1948; by Christmas the Master Plan had been approved; by the following March the architects had been given their briefs, their sites and their budget; in May their sketches were in and on July 2nd 1949, work started on site.

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 Tenniel’s 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 roneo’d 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 Britain’s 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.