Night view of Festival of Britain
Architects: Sir George Grenfell Baines and Heinz J. Reifenberg (1951)
Photograph: J. Maltby (1951)
Source: RIBA British Architectural Library Photographs Collection
Post-War Britain was miserable in many ways. After the joy of victory came years of rebuilding, restoration and continued rationing. Britain’s position as a world power had to be reconsidered. The Empire was gradually relinquished; Britain now looked inwards, not outwards. Somehow the nation needed to be redefined.
The Festival of Britain aimed to address these years of doubt. Just like its predecessor, the Great Exhibition of 1851, this was meant to be a celebration of British culture, society and economy. However, unlike the Great Exhibition, the festival had no Crystal Palace, one single spectacular building to contain its many wonders and visitors. Instead many buildings and pavilions were speedily erected on the South Bank, each themed. Around the mighty Dome of Discovery was the Sea and Ships and Power and Production Pavilions; the wonder of the Telecinema was next to the Lion and Unicorn and People of Britain Pavilions. Cafés, restaurants, toilets and information kiosks were planted amidst these, ensuring that the inquisitive visitors could enjoy all in comfort.
This photograph recalls one corner of the festival from under the struts of the Dome of Discovery to the Power and Production Pavilion. The architecture is self-consciously modern. The rules of Classical and Gothic architecture have been dispensed with; the decorative excesses of Art Deco abandoned. This is raw and industrial, even insect-like, the dramatic lighting only intensifying its skeletal quality. Most of the festival architecture is now but a distant memory. Only the Royal Festival Hall remains, restored to its glory, a lone survivor of a brave new world.