Building a new Britain

Skylon, Festival of Britain

Skylon - dome of discovery_530x669

Skylon, Festival of Britain
Architects: Powell & Moya (1951)
Photograph: J. Maltby (1951)
Source: RIBA British Architectural Library Photographs Collection

In 1951, London’s skyline was transformed by one of the most peculiar structures ever built in this country: the Skylon. An engineering marvel designed by Powell and Moya, then and now it seems difficult to categorize. More sculpture than building, it was part Zeppelin, part-rocket, part-minaret, and floated like an up-ended airship above the South Bank. Perched precariously on three ‘legs’, it was attached to a net of cables; it was unclear whether these supported its gravity-defying architecture, or anchored it to the ground. 

Dramatic by day, Skylon was even more radical, and exciting at night. Within recent memory, London’s busy skyline had been the victim of the black-out. Only searchlights were permitted, their giant columns of light streaking the sky, hunting enemy bombers and illuminating air balloons above. Now one bold beam of light hovered above all, some 250 feet tall, a symbol of victory and faith in Britain’s future. 

Unsurprisingly, Skylon mania hit the nation. Commemorative stamps, posters and mugs were avidly collected. And what better building was ever created to sell biros? What a travesty then that the Skylon, along with its neighbouring pavilions, was demolished in 1952. Only photographs can remind us of the extraordinary vision of the festival designers. This one, by John Maltby, brilliantly captures the dizzying wonder of Skylon contrasted with its surrounding buildings, and understandably remains one of the most popular images in the RIBA Photographs Collection.


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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