Leslie Martin, Robert Matthews, Peter Moro
A New Generation
The Royal Festival Hall is one of the few solid reminders of 1951's Festival of Britain. Spread over twenty-seven acres on London's bomb-ravaged South Bank, (and with orbiting exhibitions scattered throughout the rest of the country), the Festival was designed initially to mark the centenary of the Great Exhibition, but became a celebration of Modernism and a paean to the future at a time of rationing and economic austerity.
Dominating the Festival's South Bank site, the Royal Festival Hall was the biggest and most visible Modernist building in the country at the time. It was designed by Leslie Martin, Peter Moro, and Robert Matthews from London County Council's Architects' Department.
The Festival's commissioning architect Hugh Casson had made the bold decision that he would commission from only the new generation of architects- none of the fifty who worked on the South Bank were over forty-five years old. The Festival Hall, as centrepiece of the site, would be a monument to Modernism.
A Monumental Modernism
Matthews and his team had less than three years to design and build the Festival Hall. Many concert halls in Europe at the time were like palaces, or cathedrals, and the LCC's young team was determined that their concert hall should be a democratic building, as befitted the post-war era.
There are no bad seats in the house, and the wide open foyers, with bars and restaurants, were intended to be meeting places for all: there are no separate bars for different classes of concert-goer. Because these public spaces were built around the auditorium, they also had the effect of insulating the Hall from the noise of Hungerford Bridge outside.
The exterior of the Royal Festival Hall was bright white, intended to contrast with the blackened city surrounding it. Large areas of glass on its façade meant that light coursed freely throughout the interior, offering visitors changing views of the rest of the Festival as they moved through the foyers. And at night, the glass let the light from inside flood out onto the river, in contrast to the darkness which befell the rest of London after dusk.
Matthews and his team were also concerned that whilst the scale of the project demanded a monumental building, the style employed should not ape the triumphal classicism of many prominent public buildings in Europe, which were increasingly suggestive of Fascism or Stalinism. Instead, the Royal Festival Hall's gentle curves and mixed façade, with glass splitting the concrete at regular intervals, conveyed a more relaxed, welcoming feeling to the outside world.
A Better World Ahead
The Festival of Britain was certainly popular with the public, and eight million visitors flocked to the South Bank between May and September 1951. But when the Conservatives returned to government in October the site was quickly closed, and only the Festival Hall was left standing. Political resentment of the Festival stemmed from its perception as a Labour Party project, infused with a paternalistic state-sponsored ethic and championed by cabinet minister Herbert Morrison (grandfather of Peter Mandelson).
Architectural criticism centred on the whimsical nature of many of the buildings. Many Modernists felt that, as an exposition on Modernism, it was a little limp.
The brutalist approach of Modernists like the Smithsons and Erno Goldfinger in the years ahead would owe little to the Royal Festival Hall's inviting curves and whitewashed friendliness. Nonetheless, in 1951 the Festival Hall stood as the Modern Movement's grandest statement yet in Britain, and like Finsbury Health Centre, the De La Warr Pavilion, and the Lawn Road Flats before it, seemed to make a concrete offer of a better world ahead.