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Southbank celebrates the Festival of Britain

Southbank celebrates the Festival of Britain

Capturing the vim of the original 1951 festival, Southbank Centre has applied the ethos of “minimum means, maximum meaning” to this look back and forward to the Britain we inhabit now.

The site is split into various lands – People of Britain, Land, Seaside, and Power and Production. In so doing Southbank Centre has been opened up to maximum effect, its boundaries defined in yellow. Terraces have been revealed for public use and the Container Staircase has created a new entry point onto the Hayward Gallery – a walking route that has transformed the space. The staircase, part of “Power and Production”, was designed by Andrew Lock, who uses reclaimed shipping containers and the Royal Festival Hall coolant system to water the planting scheme on the stairs.

Staircase, Photograph by Belinda Lawley, Courtesy of the Southbank Centre

The use of the reclaimed and exploration of materials for a new purpose is also seen in “Black Pig Lodge”, by Heather and Ivan Morison. Black Pig Lodge is a simple but gnomish bunker made from Welsh coal from the Neath Valley. It is an odd gleaming hybrid between a rudimentary shelter and an area for sacrifice.

Robert Wilson’s “Helmand” documents the daily life of British soldiers and civilians in Helmand province (shot in 2008). It shows another environment, another form of contemporary life. Displayed in an area of the Southbank Centre site that reflects the minimal functionality, it shows a different way of living that requires different tools for existence and survival.

 Urban Fox by Pirate Technics, Photograph by Belinda Lawley, Courtesy of the Southbank Centre

“Land” is resided over by the Urban Fox created by Pirate Technic. It is a contemporary nod at the original straw Lion and the Unicorn made in 1951. The urban fox represents so much about the topsy turvy nature of contemporary life – the country thriving in the town, the pest and yet welcomed maverick that evolves to fit its changing surroundings. “Natural Soundscapes of Britain” (Marcus Coates and Geoff Sample) fills the area with atmospheres that include rutting deer, the sounds of the woodland to seabirds.

Drystone walling is used in a new way by artist Ben Kelly with three different types of stone and techniques being taken from South Wales, Blue Pennant sandstone from the Lake District; Borrowdale volcanic from Scotland, and whinstone. Questions are raised about the changing use of the countryside, ownership and rights of way.

The “Seaside” – beachhuts, bunting, the seaside garden and beach by the Thames – is dominated by Mark Dion’s “Mobile Gull Appreciation Unit”, a giant nesting gull. The beachhuts are each decorated by artists and designers, engineer and cartoonist Tim Hunkin’s “the Art Critic” being a favourite.

Beach huts, Photograph by Belinda Lawley, Courtesy of the Southbank Centre

Museum of 51 gives us a chance to look back at the Festival’s beginnings in context: the preliminary design of the original festival logo by Abram Games, the innovation and vision that created the festival in the post-war period both on the site and nationally.

The original design of the site looked to Bauhaus for its clean lines and functionality. Contemporary artists were commissioned to create works for the site. John Piper’s “The Englishman’s Home” was commissioned for the Homes and Gardens Pavilion. The 42 panel work, which is over 50 foot long, is on display at the Queen Elizabeth Hall for the first time since 1951.

An Englishman’s Home, Piper mural, Photograph by Belinda Lawley, Courtesy of the Southbank Centre