Skylon 

Skylon

Type

Monument

Built

1951

Location

Right: Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, Norwich

One of London’s vanished landmarks, the short-lived Skylon was a symbol of optimism during the austerity that followed World War 2. Opened as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951, the floating structure was bold and futuristic, with a structure that appeared to defy gravity with no visible means of support – like the British economy, according to jokes at the time.

It was a competition-winning entry from British architects Powell and Moya, and their working drawings in the RIBA’s collections give more clues about how this slender structure was suspended 40ft above the ground by cables, anchors and three lattice pylons.

The tapered body of the Skylon consisted of a taut-looking skin of aluminium louvres supported by prefabricated steel panels. The original drawings also reveal the internal lighting system lined along its length that enabled the Skylon to shine at night through its skin. Contemporary photographs in the collections evoke the atmosphere at night when the entire 250ft-long body was lit up to become a beacon on the South Bank. 
At sites across the nation the government-funded festival was designed to show Britain as looking to the future. It celebrated the contribution that  

Like the Eiffel Tower, it served no practical purpose except to make people stop and stare and wonder

Britain had made to the world in the fields of science, technology, design and architecture. The South Bank was the festival’s main focus and where the Skylon was often in view, towering over the exhibition pavilions, and has become one of the most enduring icons of this fondly remembered event.  

Before and after the Skylon

The South Bank was earmarked for redevelopment many years before 1951. It was an industrial area reduced to rubble by bombing during World War 2. The festival was an opportunity to transform it. The Skylon and many of the pavilions were demolished on Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s orders after the festival, just a year after completion, and sold for scrap. Only the Royal Festival Hall remains today. The site of the Skylon is now occupied by Jubilee Gardens, but plans to rebuild the Skylon have reappeared many times since its demise.

This is the showpiece of the exhibition…By day or night it floats 300 ft. into the sky in isolated fantasy.

Working drawing for the Skylon, Festival of Britain, South Bank, London: detailsWorking drawing for the Skylon, Festival of Britain, South Bank, LondonRight: Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, Norwich

QUOTES ABOUT SKYLON 

‘Like the Eiffel Tower, it served no practical purpose except to make people stop and stare and wonder.’
Barry Turner in Beacon for change : how the 1951 Festival of Britain shaped the modern age, 2011, p.57 
‘This is the showpiece of the exhibition…By day or night it floats 300 ft. into the sky in isolated fantasy.’
Colin St. C. Oakes in Builder, 18 May 1951, p.701 

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