Adventure of the South Bank
(from the Festival of Britain Preview and Guide) by Hugh Casson

This is the story of an adventure in building – and it is a true story. It begins about two years ago. The scene is the South Bank, a grimy and battered film-set of a place lying almost in the shadow of Big Ben but for generations left neglected and decaying.

The characters - several hundred of them - are 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. With slide rule and shovel, with typewriter, chisel, spanner and saw, they have between them transformed these 27 acres of dilapidated wharves and derelict housing into a new world of gaiety, colour and enchantment. And they have taken only about 22 months to do the job.

Some of the buildings which make up this new world are more daring and novel than anything that has ever been attempted anywhere before. Nor is this all. Within the same period of time, upon the same site, the two projects of the London County Council have also been successfully completed, a new 3,000 seat Concert Hall, which can surely claim to be the finest in Europe, and a new embankment which - completed three months ahead of schedule- has reclaimed for London's use something like 4.5 acres of Thames mud. All this has been achieved under the most difficult site conditions, in the worst weather this country has experienced for years, and at a time when materials and labour were desperately scarce. Its completion is due not only to the skill and imagination of the architects and designers concerned, but to the resource, ingenuity, and hard work of everyone concerned, both on the site itself and in offices and workshops all over the country.

For nearly two years now Londoners and visitors have looked across the river and watched the Exhibition grow. It was in the summer of 1948 when, after many alternative sites had been investigated, the choice finally fell upon the South Bank. It was a bold but inspiring decision, for this site, contained within the great curve of the Thames as it thrusts northwards between Westminster and Waterloo Bridges, lies in the very heart of London. Its advantages were obvious. It possesses a magnificent river frontage. It is easy to get to from all parts of the city – both vital assets to an exhibition site. Moreover, it is as rich in history as it is dramatic in its placing. But there were disadvantages too, of course. It was comparatively speaking, small. It was cut in half by a railway bridge and a public right of way. It was without trees.

But even these disadvantages could be turned to good account. A large exhibition is too often more exhausting than exciting and, as for the railway bridge – well, as you have read elsewhere in this issue, the exhibition story was anyway to be told in two chapters and the bridge made an appropriate division between them.
An exhibition exists only to be looked at. If it fails to arouse the visitor's interest from the start, and cannot hold his attention to the very end, then it has been built to no purpose.

This then was the problem. Our solution was based on four simple decisions. First, that the site should be linked visually, and if possible in fact, with the North Bank. This has been done by means of the Bailey Bridge built for us by the Royal Engineers. This takes off from the North Bank at the foot of Northumberland Avenue - within a few hundred yards of Trafalgar Square itself- and delivers the visitor into the heart of the Exhibition. Secondly, we agreed that in a site so small as this, huge avenues and grandiose vistas were not for us, even though we wanted them. So we have grouped the buildings round a series of courtyards, each different in colour and form and silhouette, so that in passing from one to the other the visitor is presented with a constantly changing series of views and the total size of the site is disguised by the variety of its separate parts. Impressive views have not been forgotten, but they are placed at strategic points where London herself provides them – up river to Westminster, and down river past Somerset House to St. Paul's.

Our third decision was that the main Exhibition structure – our Eiffel Tower, as it were – should be a saucer dome. This of course would have to be the largest dome in the world. And there, after many difficulties, it stands to-day, a triumph of British design and technique, and completed two days ahead of its 14-month schedule.

Our last decision was that once the master plan had been prepared and the individual buildings sited, each building should be designed by a separate architect, who would be given his programme, his site and his budget, and otherwise as free hand as possible.

These recommendations were agreed to by the Festival Office and in April, 1949, the architects' first sketches arrived. Weeks passed, while they were examined and if necessary, amended. Estimates had to be made, structural systems checked. Most of these buildings, remember, are extremely unorthodox both in appearance and in method of construction. And this is what as it should be. Exhibitions have always been the nursery of new ideas. They are the architect's laboratory where his experiments are carried out, and if successful, the results later incorporated into normal and more permanent buildings. I suppose that every exhibition designer hopes that his particular job will be more handsome and original than its predecessors. He wouldn't be a very lively designer if he did not. But we in the Festival office believe that the South Bank Exhibition will be unique, for three reasons.

First, this will be the only Exhibition of such a size ever designed in narrative form, telling a continuous story throughout the whole of its extent.

Second, the Exhibition will be selective in content and will show nothing that is not entirely British and which does not do this country the highest credit for quality of design and workmanship.

Thirdly, also we believe for the first time the buildings in which this story is told will not be buildings in the normal sense of the word. They are not, so to speak, merely decorative pavilions, with labels on the outside saying Industry, Fashion, Agriculture, or whatever it may be, but actual three-dimensional expressions of the story they tell.

The story, for instance, of the origins of our island is told in a cave-like structure covered with rocks and turf without, dim, haunted and mysterious within; that of Agriculture in a great Dutch barn, open on one side to an informal garden; that of mining at the bottom of an immense towering shaft; that of shipbuilding and the sea in a semi-open air assembly of steel ribs, canvas and spars, so designed that at suitable points in the story the visitor passes into the open-air and becomes physically conscious of the sun and the wind.

Obviously this new conception of exhibition building may look very exciting, but it has its dangers. Where everybody shouts for attention no one is heard. But, as you will see when you walk around among these structures of polished wood and gleaming metal and glass, you will. I think, feel that each one of them, however inventive or original in itself, fits happily in with its neighbours.

There are some thirty main buildings on the site, excluding smaller cafes and management offices, and they have been grouped upstream of the railway bridge round the Dome of Discovery and Skylon and downstream of the bridge, round the Royal Festival Hall and the Shot Tower.

The starting points for both groups, the first of which tells the story of the Land of Britain, the other of the People of Britain, are placed opposite each other on the main fairway and adjoining the Waterloo Station entrance. The climax of the upstream story is reached in the Dome of Discovery, a saucer of aluminium rising 90 ft above the ground. Here will be illustrated British pre-eminence on discovery and exploration, not only by land and sea but into the very nature of the living world.

The Dome is a structural adventure as typical in its bearing to this century as was the Crystal Palace of 1851. Huge arches of aluminium leap from side to side of the steel ring which encircles the rim of the saucer. The Dome itself is sheathed in aluminium, and supported on a series of hinged raking spars, so designed that they will take up without effort the bewildering series of stresses to which a building of this size is subjected under various temperatures and in different kinds of weather. As daring and novel as the Dome is its neighbour, the Skylon, the design for which was won in competition by two young architects.
This is a silver pointer balanced upon a cradle of cables, towering like a suspended exclamation mark 290 feet above the ground. At the other end of the fairway the Waterloo Station entrance is spanned by the largest laminated timber arches in Europe.

Between these buildings stand huge exhibits – a railway engine, a giant buoy, electrical plant, the bows of a 4,000 ton merchant ship. Downstream the atmosphere is quieter and more relaxed, for here is told the story of the British people, how they live and spend their leisure. The buildings are smaller, materials more traditional. There are more gardens and places in which to rest. But even here there is plenty of experimental design. Here is what is believed to be the first Telecinema in the world, presenting large-screen television and incorporating all the latest ideas as well in film projection.

At the summit of the old Shot Tower stands the aerial of a radio-telescope connected to the Dome of Discovery, and through which radio signals can be transmitted to and received from the moon. A miniature replica of the Crystal Palace stands at the foot of the tower, surrounded by pools and trees, an elegant reminder of the centenary we celebrate this year. So, past the bandstand in its garden, past the restaurants and the pools, demonstration Sports area, and thence along the Seaside promenade, which lies between the Royal Festival Hall and the river, until the visitor eventually returns to his starting point on the main Fairway.

By now perhaps it is dusk, the buildings and flags are floodlit, the lights twinkle in the trees, and the gas flames leap between the fountains. So the pace quickens as the opening day approaches. Floodlights, radio circuits and loudspeakers are tested. Demonstrators make last-minute adjustments to the machines in their care. Opening ceremonies are rehearsed, proofs of programmes and catalogues checked and re-checked. Flowers are bedded out, sculpture lifted into place. Everywhere paint is being touched up, floors polished, roads swept. For us in the Festival office the South Bank is nearly over.

The next adventure – that of seeing it in all its expected magic –is yours.