Preparations for the Festival of Britain started in 1947. The previous year the newly-formed Council of Industrial Design – later renamed the Design Council – had held the ‘Britain Can Make It’ event. Juries had considered thousands of entries, with the best 1,300 exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Morrison therefore tasked the Council with using the experience gained from that event to select both industrially produced and handcrafted exhibits for the Festival that would sit alongside others representing science, art, and entertainment. Other bodies involved were the Arts Council, the National Book League, the British Film Institute, and the Central Office of Information.
Twelve artists were invited to submit proposals for a symbol for the Festival. The competition was won by Abram Games, who had worked as the official government poster artist during the war. He had also designed one of the 1948 London Olympic stamps and thereby earned the nickname ‘Olympic’ Games. His motif was of Britannia as the north point of a four-pointed compass, coloured in red, white and blue. The face was inspired by the depiction of Britannia on the penny coin and the compass represented the whole of the United Kingdom. Asked to make his initial submission more jolly, he added a row of coloured bunting, influenced by the washing drying on his family’s clothes line. It was subsequently used, and even parodied, in numerous publications and on many types of souvenir merchandise. It can still be seen in the facia above a shop at 219 Oxford Street. Games also designed the four pence Festival postage stamp, which was the last to be issued incorporating the face of King George VI.
The Festival Council had decided there should be a central London exhibition as the main focus. Hyde Park, the South Kensington museums, and Battersea Park were considered but rejected. The architect Misha Black suggested the south bank of the Thames at Lambeth and a 27-acre area between County Hall and Waterloo was acquired. It wasn’t ideal. The site was separated into two areas – which came to be known as the ‘upstream’ and ‘downstream’ sections – by the Southern Railway viaduct carrying the line that crossed over Hungerford Bridge into the Charing Cross terminus, as well as by a public right of way.
Other than the building of the LCC’s new headquarters, the area remained a shabby, semi-derelict hodge-podge of Victorian-era industrial operations and wharves, smoky factories, and slum dwellings that had been badly bombed during the war. One of the buildings to be demolished was the Lion Brewery that had stood there since 1836 but had been disused for the previous 20 years. A large lion, made of Coade stone, stood atop the brewery facing the river and was a local landmark. It was preserved and now stands on a plinth at the eastern end of Westminster Bridge.
Hugh Casson was given responsibility for architecture. Fifty architects were commissioned by his team to produce individual features, as well as designers, artists, and sculptors. Between them they designed a number of modern buildings and structures using new technologies. Ian Cox was appointed Director of Science and Technology and he also devised the themes of the South Bank exhibition.
Work on the site began in July 1949. Misha Black took a leading role, coordinating the upstream section and the Dome of Discovery. His objective was to demonstrate the quality of modern architecture and town planning, and that architects and artists could work together to produce aesthetic unity.
The pavilions of the South Bank were arranged to tell a story of the British contribution to world civilization, from the past to the present and the future, the intention being that attendees visit pavilions in a certain order. The various structures housed 20,000 different exhibits. The theme of the upstream site was the Land of Britain, and the downstream was the People of Britain. Black later regretted that so many exhibits were crammed into the Festival, especially within the Dome, “as to make comprehension impossible” despite their quality.
The Dome, designed by Ralph Tubbs and built of pre-fabricated steel and aluminium, was decided upon at an early stage to provide a central and dominating structure, “as though it had newly arrived from Mars” according to Black. At 365 feet in diameter and 93 feet in height it was four times the size of the Albert Hall with the world’s widest unsupported span. It was filled with galleries that housed exhibitions within the overall theme of discovery. There were eight sections that included land, sea, sky, and outer space. The artist Keith Vaughan created a 50-feet long mural.
Another prominent feature of the South Bank site was the shot tower of Lambeth Lead Works, a tall chimney-like structure that had been built in 1826 for making lead pellets. The initial thoughts were that it was incompatible with the modernity of the Festival and should be demolished. Londoners were sentimental about it, however. Casson and Cox therefore re-shaped its summit to accommodate a lighthouse, as well as a radar telescope bouncing signals off the moon and operated from the Dome of Discovery, creating one of the most distinctive features. The glass for the lighthouse was supplied by Chance Brothers who had supplied the panes for the Crystal Palace a century earlier.
The 296-feet tall Skylon was a slim, obelisk-like structure of steel and aluminium supported almost invisibly by cables that towered above the site, designed by Philip Powell and John Hidalgo Mayo. It was the winning entry in a competition for a ‘vertical feature’ that attracted nearly 200 entries. It seemed like a futuristic space rocket poised for take-off. A popular joke of the time was that, like Britain, it had no visible means of support.
The Festival Hall was the second largest structure after the Dome. It had anyway been intended as a permanent concert venue, planned and built by the London County Council, and was incorporated into the exhibition. Without the Festival it would probably have been given a different name. For a building of its magnitude and importance it was designed and built remarkably quickly, with groundwork starting in May 1949 and plans continually revised during construction. The Festival Hall was built on the site of the Lion Brewery and designed by the LCC architects Robert Matthew, Leslie Martin and Peter Moro. It cost slightly over £1,600,000 and was the first major, permanent building in London to be built after the war.
The South Bank site was a massive undertaking, planned and completed during a period of industrial disputes and shortages of skilled labour. The value of Sterling was continually falling, making many of the imported construction materials ever more expensive or less available. Construction took place at the same time as a new river wall was also being constructed along the Thames between Westminster and Waterloo Bridges. In March 1950 the main consulting engineer, Sir Ralph Freeman, died unexpectedly. Yet the Festival opened on time and within the budget.