Royal Festival Hall

Updated Monday 26th November 2001

A lasting legacy from the Festival Of Britain, at the heart of the Capital.

Royal Festival Hall Creative commons image Icon Matt From London under CC-BY licence under Creative-Commons license

Architect:
Leslie Martin, Robert Matthews, Peter Moro

 

Construction Date:
1948-1951

Location:
London

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.

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

Change and progress in the post-war years Creative commons image Icon TheNationalArchive via Flickr under Creative-Commons license audio icon

History & The Arts 

Change and progress in the post-war years

Diarist Linton Andrews observes how women refused to relinquish the new roles they developed during the Second World War; and the impact of rationing.

Audio
5 mins
Timeline: Just the facts Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team article icon

History & The Arts 

Timeline: Just the facts

A timeline of the science, culture and technology of food. If you would like a more visual experience, you can explore with our food timeline interactive.

Article
Britain's Great War: Download your free 'The First World War Experienced' booklet Creative commons image Icon The Open University under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license article icon

History & The Arts 

Britain's Great War: Download your free 'The First World War Experienced' booklet

From casualties to commemoration, explore the realities of war with this free booklet.

Article
Marx: The expert view Creative commons image Icon stijn under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

Marx: The expert view

In applying dialectical analysis to the material conditions of life, Marx may have hit on a method which we can still apply in our changing times, says Sue Hemmings.

Article
How do historians know about the past? Creative commons image Icon The Open University under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license video icon

History & The Arts 

How do historians know about the past?

How do historians know about the past? What are primary and secondary sources? Find out with our short animations. 

Video
10 mins
Meet the Ten Pound Poms Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Essential viewing video icon

History & The Arts 

Meet the Ten Pound Poms

It was an offer too good to be true: a new life in Australia for a tenner. Did the Ten Pound Poms get a bargain?

Video
10 mins
The Rise of Museums Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission article icon

History & The Arts 

The Rise of Museums

Dr John Senior examines the factors that led to the rise of museums.

Article
Canary Wharf Creative commons image Icon Rodolfo França under CC-BY-NC licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

Canary Wharf

The Canary Wharf development got off to a wobbly start, but has now become iconic.

Article
Queen Victoria on William Shakespeare Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: The Royal Collection article icon

History & The Arts 

Queen Victoria on William Shakespeare

What did the Queen of England think of the Bard of Avon? We dip into her diaries to find out...

Article