This is Tomorrow exhibition, Plan

This is Tomorrow 

Images from the 1956 exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery from the RIBA Collections.

“They say this was an exhibition designed to shock. Some will have found the twelve stands exceptional and successful, others will have dismissed them out of hand as foolishness”. This was how John Stillman and John Eastwick-Field referred to the exhibition, ‘This is Tomorrow’ in a retrospective review from Architecture and Building (September 1956). Held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery from 9 August to 9 September 1956 the exhibition was hugely popular attracting over 19,000 visitors and was described by Reyner Banham as the “first Pop Art manifestation to be seen in any art gallery in the world”.

A multi-disciplinary collaboration intended to explore the idea of human habitation and the perceived boundaries between the arts, curated by a mixture of twelve groups of artists and architects including members of the Independent Group. Several of the architects involved later rose to prominence including Theo Crosby who steered the exhibition, Alison and Peter Smithson, Victor PasmoreErnö Goldfinger, James Stirling and Colin St John Wilson. Although each group worked independently, the exhibition itself acted as a single environment, see Ernö Goldfinger's plan above.

The RIBA is fortunate to have photographs of nine of the twelve exhibits, several of them unique, including some taken under construction and on the opening night by the photographers Sam Lambert and John Maltby. Beginning with the Group 1 exhibit in the entrance hall, join us for a tour of 'This is Tomorrow'.


Group 1

This is Tomorrow exhibition, Group 1

The Group 1 exhibit featured a prefabricated space-deck roof with the space modulated by plastic sheets and plywood. On the right of this image is a plaster sculpture, ‘Sungazer’ by William Turnbull. To the left is the distinctive lettering by typographer Edward Wright who designed the exhibition catalogue and the ‘Flaxman’ typeface used on New Scotland Yard’s famous revolving, triangular sign.


Group 2

This is Tomorrow exhibition, Group 2

This is Tomorrow: Group Two Assembly This is Tomorrow: Group Two Robbie the Robot This is Tomorrow: Group Two exhibit

Perhaps most memorable was the Group 2 exhibit, designed by John Voelcker, Richard Hamilton and John McHale. Featuring images from popular culture including Robby the Robot carrying off a scantily clad woman from a film poster for ‘The Forbidden Planet’ somewhat at odds with Robby’s benevolent nature! Also shown was Marilyn Monroe with her skirt flying up from ‘The Seven Year Itch’ and a poster of Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’. There was even a spongy floor that emitted a strawberry scent when walked on. The exhibition was opened by none other than Robby the Robot.


Group 4

This is Tomorrow exhibition, Group 4

Here artist Emilio Scanavino (left) and sculptor Sarah Jackson (right) can be seen installing Group 4’s exhibit done in conjunction with Jackson’s architect husband, Anthony Jackson.


Group 6

This is Tomorrow exhibition, Group 6


This is Tomorrow exhibition, Group 6

Most symbolic of the exhibits was Group 6’s ‘Patio & Pavilion’ imagined by one of the collaborators, sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi as “an ideological summerhouse of the future.” Essentially it was a rather crude shed-like structure containing photographer Nigel Henderson’s collage ‘Head of Man’ surrounded by a sand patio and collected objects scattered around. Writing in the catalogue group members simply stated that their exhibit represented, “the fundamental necessities of the human habitat in a series of symbols. The first necessity is for a piece of the world – the patio. The second necessity is for an enclosed space – the pavilion. These two spaces are furnished with symbols for all human needs.” Of note is the Smithsons’ ‘House of the Future’ in the same year’s Ideal Home Exhibition where the concept was reversed with rooms arranged around a central patio garden.


Group 7

This is Tomorrow exhibition, Group 7

This is Tomorrow: Group Seven Preliminary Study 1 This is Tomorrow: Group Seven Preliminary Study 2 This is Tomorrow: Group Seven

Group 7’s exhibit arguably presented the greatest clarity in demonstrating the collaboration between the members of the group. The architect Ernö Goldfinger provided the setting of free-standing walls at right angles to each other for Victor Passmore’s artwork and Helen Phillips’ sculpture. The bottom drawing by Goldfinger was reproduced in its entirety in the exhibition catalogue and the photograph looks through to Group 8’s ‘bubble’ sculpture visible on the centre right. 


Group 10

This is Tomorrow exhibition, Group 10

Group 10’s members stated clearly their aims in the catalogue: “In the context of this particular exhibition we have confined ourselves to articulating directional space through which the spectators pass.” Quite probably influenced by Le Corbusier’s chapel, Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp which was completed the year before in 1955, their ‘sculpture-corridor’ was most successful in its synthesis of architecture and sculpture. 


Group 11

This is Tomorrow exhibition, Group 11

Stillman and Eastwick-Field considered how understandable ‘This is Tomorrow’ might have been to the “ordinary man”, not least Group 11’s wall sculpture of concrete blocks. Although much less controversial than Carl Andre ‘Equivalent VIII’ (1966) sculpture of 120 bricks which gained notoriety in 1976 following acquisition by the Tate one can imagine visitors to the exhibition pondering the notion of what makes art or a sculpture. Quite whether Apollo magazine’s review (September 1956) of ‘This is Tomorrow’ as being “pretentious bunk” remains open to debate today.

Click here for further images of 'This is Tomorrow', all of which are available to download, purchase or license.

Feature by Jonathan Makepeace and Suzanne Waters