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The Festival of Britain, which took place 60 years ago this week, was conceived as “a tonic for the nation”, a cheerful, forward-looking event and a break from rationing, austerity and the brown landscape of a still bomb-scarred country. It was to present a picture of the future, a mini-expo of the aesthetics people had to look forward to. It was the first case of culture presented as urban regeneration and, although its buildings have largely disappeared, its legacy has proved surprisingly enduring.
1. The South Bank
Billed as the biggest cultural quarter in any capital city, the greatest legacy of the Festival of Britain is the stretch of former industrial riverside near Waterloo. It has since grown to embrace the giant Ferris wheel of the London Eye in the west all the way to Tate Modern – the most visited modern art museum in the world – in the east. At its heart is the Royal Festival Hall, the most public, most civic and best-loved building of the modern age in London and arguably the first modernist structure to be truly adopted by a city that once seemed hyper-conservative but is now apparently in love with the contemporary.
2. The Skylon
A functionless structure in the shape of a rocket – the contemporary joke was that, like the postwar British economy, it had no visible means of support. This was the icon for the festival, a thrusting, sleek, dynamic symbol with a name apparently derived from a blend of “nylon”, “pylon” and “skyhook”. It was demolished on the orders of Winston Churchill (the Labour government-commissioned Skylon was seen as a symbol of socialism) and its loss is still surprisingly genuinely felt.
3. Spidery furniture
The Festival of Britain bred its own kind of officially promoted furniture: amoeboid tables, chairs, plant stands and – of course – cocktail cabinets (kidneys, atoms, molecules – pseudo-science-meets-Miró) were barely propped up on spindly, splayed legs. These barely-there molecular masterpieces are pure Festival of Britain – cheap plywood and vinyl but still somehow retaining a hint of high-tech glamour. Britain’s effete but endearing contribution to modernism.
Conran started working as a designer on the Festival of Britain and he has managed to retain the enthusiasm for the modern which it embodied in a career that has seen him transform British retail, furniture and dining. He is a rare survivor of the age, a living monument. His restaurant at the Festival Hall is called, perhaps inevitably, Skylon.
5. A love for useless monuments
The Skylon and its neighbours might be gone but they seeded an enduring love for pointless icons. The Millennium Dome was a memory of the festival’s Dome of Discovery, we have the Angel of the North and will soon, perhaps, get Mark Wallinger’s Brobdingnagian horse in Kent. King of them all, though, is Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit, a hideous melted trombone at the 2012 Olympics site – note the Skylon-style space-age name.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic