Building a new Britain

Festival Gardens site

Festival of Britain site_530x361

Festival Gardens site
Drawing: H. Hoare (1951)
Source: RIBA British Architectural Library Drawings & Archives Collection

Over 8 million people visited the South Bank in 1951, the main site of the Festival of Britain. However, this was but one of many attractions. Exhibitions, concerts and model developments were spread across the country, from Glasgow to Cheltenham, Belfast to Bermondsey: this truly was the Festival of Britain.

In London just as many people visited the Festival Gardens in Battersea. The South Bank pavilions were filled with the latest design, technology and art; the Festival Gardens were for fun. The design was a cornucopia of delights, principally the work of  James Gardner (1907-1995). It had bold, colourful planting schemes, fairy-tale pavilions, fairground rides and water features galore. What’s more, all of this was designed to be enjoyed as much by night as by day, the breathtaking lighting scheme often accompanied by fireworks.

Despite the numbers of visitors, the Festival Gardens were not altogether a success. Stylistically the gardens were much criticized: this was not the earnest, modern-looking design of the South Bank, but rather regarded as trivial. More importantly, the gardens opened behind schedule and proved costly. The government decided to keep them open to try and recoup losses to no avail; perhaps this sketch by Hoar records this. Dated around 1951, the workmen are busily trying to finish. The site is barren. Beyond loom the chimneys of Battersea Power Station. A transformation was still necessary.



About the online exhibition

'How We Built Britain' is a major collaboration with the BBC


Images in the exhibition are from RIBApix, a growing database dedicated to providing you with exceptional and unique images from the RIBA British Architectural Library's collections.

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