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Sentimental journey

Twentieth Century Architecture 5: Festival of Britain Edited by Elain Harwood and Alan Powers. Twentieth Century Society, 2001. 176pp. £19.95

Like Banquo's ghost, the Festival of Britain still continues to haunt our present government. Fifty years ago, a small coterie of the liberal left, trusting to instinct and unencumbered by public consultation, put on a show which helped create a mood of national euphoria. On the South Bank, in Battersea (see picture) and around the country there was, we are told, one great family party in celebration of the 'British achievement in arts, sciences and industrial design'.

In 1976 the Victoria and Albert Museum held the exhibition 'A Tonic to the Nation' to commemorate that achievement. At that time most of those who had been involved could still be called upon to give their reminiscences, except Gerald Barry, the director-general of the festival, and Herbert Morrison, who had championed it in the Cabinet, both of whom died in the 1960s.

Now, 50 years on, the Twentieth Century Society has again coaxed some of the participants into action, notably the architects Sir Philip Powell and H T Cadbury-Brown. As if it were yesterday, they can still remember what a joy it was to have a big project to work on after 10 years without building.

But the number of survivors is dwindling, so these new essays represent the transition from the creators to the historians. Some of the sense of fun has been lost, to be replaced by more thoughtful perspectives on the longterm meaning of the event. The emphasis in this collection is on the design of the buildings and spaces, rather than the exhibits:

there is not much on politics, except the piece by Suzanne Waters on Gerald Barry, and very little on how exactly the £11 million of public money invested in the festival was spent.

The festival had two obvious advantages over similar events before and since: its timing and location. Ideally, it should have happened earlier, but 1951 was still a good moment to mark the recovery of national morale following post-war austerity - camouflage and drabness were replaced by bright colours and floodlighting.

The South Bank site was a superb choice, nearer to central London than anyone had realised (we forget what a closed book that side of the river used to be). Gavin Stamp describes what was there before the festival, and stops just short of saying that he wishes it had not happened in such a historic spot.Yet, even he is forced to admit that, in a muddled way, it has paid dividends in the recovery of riverside Lambeth and Southwark.

But when and where the festival took place only partly explains its success. It benefited from clear management, freedom from sponsorship (except at the Battersea Fun Fair - everyone remembers the Guinness clock), and a coherent ethos devoid of competition between exhibitors.

Above all, it caught the mood of the time by forsaking the bombast and formalism of pre-war exhibitions in favour of picturesque light-heartedness. Nowhere was that more evident than in the work of the Festival Typographic Panel, succinctly analysed here by Paul Rennie. The ubiquitous sanserif was dislodged in favour of either heavier robust lettering or a typeface designed to flutter like festive buntings.

This sense of levity worked because people were ready for it, but also because of an underlying confidence in the achievements that were being celebrated. But a month after the festival closed, the government that organised it fell from power, and those who had opposed all that it stood for began their long period of triumph.No wonder so many people - even those not born at the time - are so sentimental about 1951.

Robert Thorne is a historian at Alan Baxter & Associates

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