thinking about :: festival style

Katie | May 1, 2011

A month with five Sundays affords me the opportunity to deviate from my usual topics and include a little something about Festival Style; topical at the moment due to the Southbank Centre’s 60th anniversary celebrations of 1951’s Festival of Britain which began last week and run until September.

Original Guide to the Festival of Britain, 1951

The Festival of Britain took place from May to September 1951, and was designed to commemorate the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851. It celebrated Britain’s achievements and potential; engaged people with the arts, science and industry; and provided a tonic after the austerity of the Second World War. It was promoted as a ‘national village fete’ and ‘a tonic to the nation.’

Map of London produced for the Festival with key attractions marked

Events took place right across the British Isles and a distinct design style known as Festival Style was born. It’s a topic far too broad to cover in one post, so I’ve picked out the Royal Festival Hall, the Lansbury Estate and the Battersea Pleasure Gardens to focus on – and included links to lots of extra information in the “Further reading for the especially geeky” section at the end.

Map of Southbank Exhibition from original Festival Guide

The epicentre of the Festival was the Southbank, with attractions such as the Dome of Discovery, the Skylon (whose name was created by poet Margaret Sheppard Fidler, by combining the words ‘sky hook’ and ‘pylon’ to create a pleasing word that sounded like ‘nylon’ – a new and exciting development of the time), and the Royal Festival Hall.

The Royal Festival Hall, 2011

The Royal Festival Hall has always been one of my favourite spots in London. It was designed by London County Council’s architecture team led by Leslie Martin, Robert Matthew and Peter Moro, and was the first major public building to be completed since prior to WW2. It was designed to be spacious, sociable and democratic, and in succeeding, quickly earned the title ‘The People’s Palace.’

Two chairs in the Clore Ballroom, Royal Festival Hall, 2008

The use of glass, white and wood, combined with accents of certain colours like the red and turquoise and muted green seen below, are typical of festival style.

White, glass and wood at the Royal Festival Hall, 2008

Red chairs in Royal Festival Hall, 2008

Royal Festival Hall lift interior, 2008

The generous use of glass connected inside spaces with outside terraces and seating areas; commonplace now, but almost unheard of in 1951.

Outside terrace at Royal Festival Hall, 2008

Robin and Lucienne Day were very involved in the development of the Royal Festival Hall; with contributions including Lucienne’s Calyx Print and Robin’s Arm Chair for the Royal Festival Hall.  The majority of the chairs in use today are these Arne Jacobsen Series 7 Chairs, designed in 1955.

Arne Jacobsen Series 7 chairs at Royal Festival Hall, 2008

Placing the concert hall at the centre of the space enabled it to be as large as possible, with an egalitarian layout that meant no ‘bad seats’. It also provided plenty of space for audiences to spill out into during intervals. These spaces also became popular, and indeed still are, as social meeting places where people from all walks of life feel welcome.

Someone relaxing in a quiet spot at Royal Festival Hall, 2008

The infamous net and ball carpet, designed by Peter Moro, was lovingly recreated during the 2005-7 refurbishment and was the subject of much of This is Tomorrow, a film originally shown with a live Saint Etienne score, documenting the refurbishment. Joyfully, mats and wallpaper are now available in the same pattern, but sadly no carpet as yet.

Net and Ball carpet, 2008

Festival style even found its way into some British architecture and design in later years as these pictures of Holborn library, opened in 1960 show. (Full post on the architecture and design of London’s libraries to follow – watch this space!)

Holborn library exterior, 2011

Festival-style canopy seen from underneath, Holborn library, 2011

Festival Style mosaic inside Holborn library, 2011

Festival Style details within Holborn library, 2011

While the arts, sciences and technology were showcased on the Southbank, the exhibition of architecture was in East London’s Poplar in the form of the Lansbury Estate, largely designed by Sir Frederick Gibberd.

Low-rise flats overlooking market place in Lansbury Estate, 2011

“Its design has been based not solely on abstract aesthetic principles, or on the economics of commercial construction, or on the techniques of mass production, but on the social constitution of the community itself, with its diversity of human interests and human needs. Thus the architects and planners have avoided not only the clichés of ‘high rise’ building, but the dreary prison-like order that results from forgetting the very purpose of housing and the necessities of neighbourhood living.” (Lewis Mumford, Architecture Critic, 1953.)  

Clock Tower in Lansbury's Estate with Goldfinger's Balfron Tower in the background, 2011

On a more frivolous note, The Pleasure Gardens at Battersea Park presented ‘the lighter side of The Festival of Britain,’ to provide a counterpoint to the more educational exhibitions. Boats ferried visitors from Waterloo to relax after a hard day’s festival-going. The gardens included an oriental pagoda, a ‘tree-walk’, a fun fair, the Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Branch Railway and the Guinness clock although sadly, little of what was there remains today.

Battersea Pleasure Gardens (photograph by 'diamond geezer')

You might also enjoy:

Further reading for the especially geeky:

Further Reading for the Especially Geeky ::

Founding Editor – Katie Treggiden

Having established confessions of a design geek in 2010, Katie Treggiden has gone on to a career in design journalism, writing for titles such as The Guardian, The Telegraph, Elle Decoration, Stylist, Design Milk and Ideal Home. In 2014, she launched Fiera, an independent magazine dedicated to discovering new talent at the world’s design fairs. Her second book, Makers of East London, was published in 2015.

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