Thursday, May 12, 2011

Chrisp Street, London

Festival Britain (3): Built to last

Looking back, people are apt to think of the South Bank Exhibition as ‘The Festival of Britain’. But what went on by the Thames was just the centrepiece of a much larger Festival. There was an Exhibition of Science at South Kensington, an Exhibition of Industrial Power in Glasgow, a Farm and Factory Exhibition in Belfast, and a travelling exhibition that visited Leeds, Manchester, Nottingham, and Birmingham. Smaller communities put on special events, and in towns that already held some form of annual festival, this event in 1951 was subsumed into the national celebrations. And then there was the Live Architecture Exhibition, tucked away in Poplar, East London, in the area that became known as Lansbury.

It was an exhibition, but not as we know it. The idea was to rebuild a section of still war-damaged London and present it as an exemplum of the way Britain could be rebuilt after the bombing. There were temporary pavilions too, containing displays on architecture, planning, and building science. But the idea was that, unlike most of the Festival structures, Lansbury would be permanent. The principal architect was Frederick Gibberd (now better known as the designer of Liverpool’s Roman Catholic Cathedral) and a group of other architects were commissioned to design areas of housing and a primary school. Gibberd himself did the market place.

The development gave architects the chance to show what they could do when it came to designing housing and to produce something that was more lasting and less flashy than the exhibition buildings on the South Bank. The focus of Gibberd’s market place was the clock tower, shown in the picture. Gibberd proposed making this into an observation tower containing a pair of staircases, one to go up and one to come down, and the concrete framework of the landings and staircases was exposed on the outside, to make a pattern of pale diamonds up the sides of the tower. The spaces within the diamonds were left clear, so that those ascending and descending could look out.

Gibberd somewhat ruefully described what happened to his building: ‘It was a practical folly that gave pleasure, but only for a short time. The fear was suicides; the base was surrounded with spiked railings and the viewing platform enclosed in wire mesh.’ At least now the tower is home to some dramatic lighting, ensuring that it remains a visual focus for the area, night and day.

Photograph by Louise Joly
Used under Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike 3.0 Unported license


Anonymous said...

You might like to see "diamondgeezer"'s blog entry for 3 May.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Anon: Thanks. That post has lots of interesting additional information about this subject.

Anonymous said...

You might find diamondgeezer's blog post of 3 May interesting.

Peter Ashley said...

Something happened to me once in Chrisp Street, but I can't remember what.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Anon: Thanks for pointing me towards this interesting post.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Peter: Very good, Carry on.