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June 3, 2011 10:09 pm

Private wealth and public spaces

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Whereas the 1951 Festival of Britain left a legacy of the enduring power of culture, the 2011 celebrations feel temporary and ephemeral

Two themes, each framed as an alternative, played in my head at the 60th anniversary celebrations (continuing until September 4) of the Festival of Britain at the Southbank Centre in London. Thinking of the contrast between 1951, the year of the original Festival, when Britain officially began to emerge from postwar austerity, and 2011, the year which may inaugurate a new age of austerity, I found myself reflecting on permanence versus ephemerality, and forward-looking and nostalgia.

The most obvious legacy of 1951 is the Royal Festival Hall, that ungainly modernist building. Since its 2007 refit, it has become more welcoming, making the most of its magnificent Thames frontage with its river terrace. The refit also opened up neglected interior spaces and the three façades that do not face the Thames. The notoriously soulless acoustics have also been warmed and clarified. The Hall serves, and will serve, as a performing crucible for the greatest music.

Everything about the 2011 celebrations, on the other hand, feels temporary and ephemeral; a row of beach-huts has been put up along the Thames, with the longest strip of bunting ever strung (one for the Guinness Book of Records, perhaps, but otherwise pointless); a roof-garden has been planted above the Queen Elizabeth Hall; there is a “Bombay beach-inspired café” (we will see how suited that is to a cool rainy London summer); and an outsize straw statue of an urban fox positioned at the back of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. These are all good fun, but they are hardly game-changers for culture.

This 60th anniversary has coincided with a vogue for 1950s/ early 1960s fashion and design; at the anniversary party you could not help noticing the girls in slim-waisted Mad Men-style frocks. Some looked gorgeous, but gave me a jolt, as if transporting me back to the time just before I was born. Meanwhile, 1950s furniture, which used to be considered naff, is highly sought-after. One danger for the 60th anniversary celebrations is that they degenerate into a shallow exercise in nostalgia. You might link this to the recent royal wedding, in which a striking and quite old-fashioned dress married a Ruritanian uniform. I couldn’t possibly comment.

Nostalgic was the last adjective you could apply to the 1951 Festival of Britain, by all accounts. Of course, there was little desire to look backwards, to the “low, dishonest decade” of the 1930s, marked by the Depression and the rise of fascism, or to the total war of 1939-45. Terence Conran, who worked on the site for the original festival, has said that it felt like a new beginning. The writer Michael Frayn remembers it as “a wonderful paradise, full of bright colours and stylish, elegant forms”. Among them was the Skylon, a thin cigar-shaped structure 300ft high, which seemed to float in the air. Loved by many, it was hated by the Conservative government that came to power in late October 1951. Winston Churchill ordered it to be torn down and chopped into pieces.

If the Royal Festival Hall represented a faith in the enduring power of culture, the Skylon symbolised a faith in a techno-scientific future. Twelve years later Harold Wilson would be getting fired up about “the white heat of the scientific and technological revolution” and 18 years later, the first men would step on the Moon,so the Skylon was ahead of its time. But now it seems charmingly dated, whereas the Festival Hall has not dated but rather grown into its space, as other elements of one of the world’s greatest culture complexes have congregated round it. One thing the Festival Hall and the Skylon symbolised was hope, and that’s the quality that is hardest to find amid all 2011’s playful post-modern paraphernalia. There are hints of a sustainable future in the rooftop garden created in partnership with Cornwall’s Eden Project, irrigated using a brilliant pollution-free pump, but it’s all rather tentative. Unfortunately, the garden’s irrigation infrastructure, consisting of an old container, looks as if it will fall foul of health and safety rules.

To be frank, these 60th anniversary celebrations have been put together on the cheap. It is sponsored by Mastercard and that company’s spokesman talked cheerfully at the opening party about “consumers”. The 1951 Festival aimed higher. Part of its enduring power is that it represented a large, generous gesture on the part of planners and politicians, including Herbert Morrison, the then deputy prime minister, and the famously stingy Stafford Cripps, then secretary for trade and industry.

Big money – hundreds of millions of pounds in today’s terms – was spent in a time of huge debt (far higher than today’s), to promote British culture, design, art, science and ingenuity. Since then private wealth, in aggregate, has increased vastly; but everywhere the realm of the public seems threatened.

The current celebrations, not least the excellent Museum of 1951 curated by Wayne and Gerardine Hemingway, perform a valuable service in reminding us that big political gestures focusing on the creative use of public space can be inspirational and can leave lasting legacies for the good.

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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