The Millennium festival is widely accepted to have been an embarrassing shadow of the 1951 Festival of Britain. So why are we risking a similar anticlimax by considering a proposal to rebuild the Skylon? Do we need a sham repro-techno-folly? Or is this a case of justified restoration rather than nostalgic replication? Rob Gregory reports
Whether or not you believe that the Festival of Britain’s South Bank exhibition represented the beginning or end of an architectural era, as an event with more than 8.5 million visitors, its success and popularity are undeniable. However, after a short five-month season, ignoring calls to extend operation for a further year, the returning Conservative government stepped in and tore it all down. Unwilling to become the caretaker of ‘empty and deteriorating structures’, many critics thought this was perfectly reasonable, judging the festival architecture to be flimsy and weak. However, three structures stood out as exceptional: the incomplete Royal Festival Hall, now the subject of its own emerging conservation battle;
Ralph Tubbs’ Dome of Discovery, the direct inspiration for Rogers’ Millennium Dome;and the gravity-defying, futuristic Skylon, by the duo Powell and Moya.
While the RFH remained to be remodelled by Robert Maxwell, and readers of Dan Dare may romantically assume that the Dome of Discovery flew back to the planet from whence it came (rather than being sold back to ICI for scrap), no one knew what happened to the cigar-shaped Skylon. Dan Cruickshank televised his search for it, finding only a twofoot length salvaged by one of the original demolition contractors, and the original inlaid brass ring within which observers stood to view the needle from below. Was the rest really broken down to be made into ashtrays?
Regardless of such speculations, many have suggested recreating the original Powell and Moya Skylon as part of South Bank masterplans - Rogers, Hopkins and Troughton McAslan, to name just three - and today we are facing another proposal by the Royal Academy and Ian Ritchie. But how should it be done? Should we replicate or recreate the original? In conversation with Cruickshank, Jacko Moya modestly stated that given the chance he would have made a number of changes to benefit from technological and material improvements (apparently the internal lights were prone to fusing). Can this debate be resolved? Could a new Skylon become our Eiffel Tower? And if so, will the nostalgic herbivores succeed in their plans to replicate the original, or will a new breed of hungry carnivores be encouraged to produce something new? I spoke to some interested parties, and it seems that the jury is out? Rob Gregory is an architect and assistant editor of The Architectural Review
LEONARD MANASSEH - ARCHITECT ON THE FESTIVAL OF BRITAIN DESIGN TEAM I would be delighted if they choose to rebuild the Skylon - but I am biased. It was a remarkable feat for two young architects, a stroke of real genius.While Phillip Powell often credited the Skylon to be Jacko Moya’s creation, Felix Samuely praised the young architects joint achievement, stating that his only involvement was to check the calculations they had made. And they got it right. Any rebuild should be identical.
SIMON JENKINS - FORMER MILLENNIUM COMMISSIONER I am totally in favour of the Skylon but totally against the wheel. The wheel should be moved to Battersea and replaced by the Skylon.The wheel is too big where it is. A pole, spike or spire form is far more appropriate in the urban environment. As for replication, the Skylon is an eternal shape - and while it may be slightly altered, it should be the same.
STEPHEN BAYLEY - FORMER CREATIVE DIRECTOR OF THE MILLENNIUM DOME The cycles of revival are getting shorter and shorter, so it’s no surprise to find the Skylon being resuscitated. There was always something touching about it: a gentle, wistful vision of a technological future in which Britain would play no part. We now think rather differently about Britain’s place in world culture. So while I’m instinctively uneasy about repro, with the Skylon there’s a delicious ambiguity and absurdity that (sort of ) justifies the camp artifice. I’d like to see it happen
RICHARD MACCORMAC - ARCHITECT While I agree that it would be wonderful to have a new form of the Skylon, that is not the issue. Quite simply, the original Skylon should never have been lost. The Conservative government tore it down, seeing it as nothing more than a socialist folly. Having worked for Powell and Moya during my year out, the Skylon should have remained as a fitting memorial to two great young architects - a partnership where it was impossible to see exactly who did what. On a city level, I prefer maverick structures like the Skylon. Rather than allowing private office blocks to dominate, more beautiful structures like this should be encouraged.
CECIL BALMOND - ENGINEER The Skylon was wonderful, although surprisingly undervalued at the time - seen almost as a cosmetic object, rather than as the significant piece of engineering that it was. Since then it has rightfully grown in stature, and as a model of engineering it has real value. It is a timeless piece, indeed it was epochal. But nostalgia for its own sake is never worthwhile, and while you can understand the proposed composition of the Skylon - seen as a counterpoint to the wheel - things have moved on. I would prefer to see a competition set for something new. Not purely architecture or engineering - but as a design piece. Today we have new ways to interpret the beautiful resolution of forces.
CHARLES JENCKS - ARCHITECTURAL CRITIC AND LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT Let them build it - hooray! But if you ask me, there really is no point in reinventing yesterday’s science.We now know that the universe is 13.7 billion years big, comprising 23 per cent dark matter,73 per cent dark energy and only 4 per cent us (all we can see). It is archaic and backwardlooking to seek our inspiration from something [the festival] that in itself was 40 years late. No matter what people say, it was half-hearted and based on nautical whimsy, and was not Britain in its finest hour. If people want to spend £1 million on something new we should celebrate what we are now and our future. If you’re asking me what we should do, a competition is the answer - where we invite the best from around the world to celebrate a new language of architecture, a nature-based new iconography. Something to celebrate cosmogenesis.
MARK WHITBY - ENGINEER Today, building edifices seems less relevant than it was, and on this site I think the wheel is enough. The Skylon was a wonderful object of its time, but it doesn’t need to be rebuilt. The wheel is an ideal successor to the Skylon - it speaks of now, and of people; providing the most elegant way to get people up into the air. Unfortunately, the sad irony is that replicating the Skylon is just the sort of project that the Heritage Lottery Fund may well support, when in my opinion they should support contemporary projects, such as the East of England Development Agency Landmark East proposal to create edifices of the lost city of Dunwich in the sea. Here, heritage and art come together to create wonderful landmarks capable of simultaneously encapsulating today, tomorrow and yesterday.
ALAN POWERS - FORMER DIRECTOR OF THE MISS TWENTIETH CENTURY SOCIETY I’d love to see a Skylon, but not necessarily in the original position.The South Bank needs more than a gesture. In 1951 there was a holistic approach to the experience of the space that should be recaptured in a new way.
Today, for example, the scale of the Hungerford Bridge masts and the London Eye would make the Skylon look too small. The most important thing to do for the future of the South Bank is to demolish the Shell Centre, or at least make it permeable. A reconstructed Skylon needs to be sited where it will look best as part of an ensemble. Maybe near the Millennium Dome, which needs a ‘vertical feature’.
THOMAS HEATHERWICK - CREATOR OF THE 56MHIGH ‘B OF THE BANG’LANDMARK I think on this I will have to sit on the fence.What I would say, however, is to be cautious about the wonder of things past. I would like to study the drawings to see how perfectly it was detailed. I would not like to see it redetailed by a good-taste practice making a contemporary version of it. What we don’t want is a pervy modern version.The South Bank can take many things, and perhaps by replicating the Skylon we could encourage more things to be built. The fundamental question, though, is: what is the brief? Is this proposal based on a genuine enthusiasm for the Skylon, or are we looking to recreate the sensation of ‘51? If there are the funds to rebuild the Skylon specifically, let’s do it. However, if not we should encourage something less literal.