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“The V&A’s press release declared that the South Bank ‘was deliberately obliterated … by the new government’”

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Eduardo Paolozzi and Victor Pasmore. He also ridiculed visitors for embracing a banal ‘Festival Style’ which he defined as ‘colourrinse concrete, lily of the valley splays of light bulbs, cane work, aluminium lattices’. And he lambasted Basil Spence’s Coventry Cathedral as ‘the apotheosis of the Festival’.

Contributions from Bartlett colleagues Adrian Forty and Reyner Banham shared Feaver’s tendency to infantilise the festival’s visitors. Forty employed Frayn’s herbivore/carnivore metaphor to depict it as an isolationist ‘narcotic for the nation’, distracting the masses from broken promises with an image of ‘what Britain might be like with full employment and a welfare state’ that was ‘illusory and partly false’. According to Forty, the festival advocated that ‘happiness could be found through material possessions and plenty of shiny paint’, yet appreciation of its designs was limited: ‘For the crowd, it was enough for the contents … to be new and unusual.’ Forty’s most pungent contribution was to brand Churchill the ‘greatest Carnivore of all’, picking ‘the Festival as the particular target on which to concentrate his most vituperative criticisms of [Labour’s] domestic policy’, encouraging the excesses of Beaverbrook’s newspapers, and erasing away this ‘socialist Festival of Britain’ upon closure. This last claim was sensationalised in the exhibition’s press release, which declared that the South Bank ‘was deliberately obliterated … by the new government’.

Equally influential was Banham’s contribution, ‘The Style: “Flimsy … Effeminate”?’, which portrayed an establishment fixated on the festival as a moment of cultural renewal, when in reality its style had, he believed, ‘died a-borning’. Mild quotes from organisers such as Misha Black (‘The Festival … gently pushed forward an existing style – it did not create one’) were presented by Banham as hard-won admissions rather than long-held opinions. Yet few had ever pretended that the Festival of Britain had enduring or international significance. One participant stated that it ‘marked the ending of a style, not the beginning’, while its architectural director described it as ‘a giant toyshop for adults … light-hearted, sensible, not too serious’. The only real evidence Banham offered for the existence of this surprisingly ineffective establishment attempt to guard the flame of a Festival Style came in the questionable form of quotes from cartoonist Osbert Lancaster.

In truth, the festival’s major stylistic legacy, outside domestic and retail interiors, was the backlash it sparked. The completion of Spence’s Coventry Cathedral in 1961 met with a widespread

OPPOSITE Aerial view of the festival site in 1951, dominated by Ralph Tubbs’s Dome of Discovery ABOVE The opening of the Royal Festival Hall on 12 May 1951 – the orchestra chairs were designed by Robin Day BELOW The official guide to the South Bank Exhibition (1951), depicting the festival star designed by Abram Games

April 2019

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