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Festival of Britain, South Bank: showcase for landscape architects

Posted on March 17th, 2010 by Charles Boot

John Thompson writes:
The spaces around the buildings of the South Bank Exhibition provided the opportunity for innovative ideas of Landscape Design to be tried out. A formal Beaux Art approach based on the axial cross avenue, the round-point, and vista, was the method previously favoured for exhibitions. The South Bank represented a complete departure from this tradition, and incorporated 18th-century Picturesque theory, an idealized response to nature. The landscape was composed of carefully contrived sequences of concealment and disclosure. The visitor was in consequence rewarded by subtle surprises and dramatic contrasts along the way around the site. Fortunately a team of talented and extremely enlightened Landscape Architects were on hand to implement their new ideas.

‘… the rectangular design echoes the ingenious motif of the wall behind in colour and shape. At the same time the delicate growth of the bamboos, so soothing to the eye, is enhanced by the contrast with the vigourous wall pattern.’ View of the gardens alongside the Homes & Gardens pavilion looking towards the Festival Hall and Shot Tower

‘… the rectangular design echoes the ingenious motif of the wall behind in colour and shape. At the same time the delicate growth of the bamboos, so soothing to the eye, is enhanced by the contrast with the vigourous wall pattern.’ View of the gardens alongside the Homes & Gardens pavilion looking towards the Festival Hall and Shot Tower (photo by Peter Shepheard).

The naturalistic approach to Landscape Design is probably England’s most important contribution to the visual arts, and the informal tree planting, the use of water, and of natural walling and paving throughout the South Bank illustrate this preoccupation. The 17th- and18th-century pleasure gardens of London such as Vauxhall and Ranelagh with their mechanical devices and contrived novelties, were also a strong infiuence, together with the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, which has maintained the tradition of the pleasure garden. The modern movement, with its strong emphasis on function, had not been adopted with enthusiasm in Britain; it is understandable therefore that Scandinavia was a significant influence, where the siting of buildings in a natural setting among rocks and woodlands, fitted happily with the picturesque tradition.

The landscape of the South Bank was conceived as being part and parcel of the architecture. Architects and Landscape Architects worked as a team under Sir Hugh Casson, Director of Architecture to the Exhibition to create a consciously designed townscape in the informal English tradition. H.F. Clark, assisted by Maria Shephard, was landscape consultant to the Festival Office for the whole site. Peter Shepheard was landscape architect for the area downstream of Hungerford Bridge; upstream, the Concourse area, was by H.F. Clark and Maria Shephard, and the rest by Peter Youngman.

The majority of space between buildings was paved to accommodate crowds of up to 75,000 in a day. Backwater spaces, off the major circulation areas, were provided for sitting and resting, and there were only a limited number of enclosed gardens. Yorkstone was the main paving material with cobbles and loose pebbles as a textural contrast and gentle deterrent. Hexagonal concrete paving was frequently used and became an iconic element.

It is only when plants are grown individually, rather than in groups, that their full beauty of shape can be seen. The rough pebbles not only greatly enhance the design, but also serve a horticultural purpose by conserving the moisture and keeping the roots of the plant cool, as well as discouraging weeds.

'It is only when plants are grown individually, rather than in groups, that their full beauty of shape can be seen. The rough pebbles not only greatly enhance the design, but also serve a horticultural purpose by conserving the moisture and keeping the roots of the plant cool, as well as discouraging weeds' (photo by Peter Shepheard).

The Moat Garden by Peter Shepheard, next to the Homes and Gardens Pavilion, with a tented tea restaurant stood on a terrace surrounded by a moat planted with water lilies and other aquatic plants. Across the moat, a picturesque shore combined Westmorland boulders and pebbles with richly textured trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants. Plants included Betula, Rhus typhina, Catalpa bignoniodes as a background to herbaceous plants such as Polygonum sacholinense (?), Crambe orientalis (?), Macleaya cordata and Rheum palmatum; strong architectural plants of the type so well illustrated by the famous architectural draughtsman Gordon Cullen. A wide stone edge separates the diners from the moat, providing a smooth contrast to the multi-textured backcloth of planting and boulders.

The garden of the Regatta Restaurant by H.F. Clark and Maria Shephard was in a well, surrounded on alI four sides by the building and its stairs and roof decks, and overlooked by an open-air bar at ground level. The boundary was formed by a low balustrade, in the top of which was a row of slate water basins with little fountains. The planting area was curvilinear in outline, the planting being predominantly shrubs and herbaceous, such as Senecio greyi (now Brachyglottis ‘Sunshine’), Ligularia clivorum (now L. dentata), Azaleas & Iris, with some bedding. Much of the ground was covered with water worn pebbles and boulders. A sculpture by Lynn Chadwick formed a focal point, and the fluid form of the planting was emphasised by the surrounding water. The garden by Peter Youngman surrounding the Royal Pavilion is more formal in character than the two previously described. Though small in area it was contained by a belt of Rhododendron and other shrubs. An ingenious disposition of circular beds, edged by paving, makes the lawn area appear to be larger than it actually is. H.F. Clark and Maria Sheppard created the illusion of a primeval forest in a narrow space, between the back of the People of Britain Pavilion, and the vast brick wall of the railway bridge. Betula, Dicksoniana and Arundinaria formed the canopy planting with astilbe, grasses, ferns, and ivy as ground cover.

The use of York stone, and of natural stone on the flanks of buildings throughout the site, created an overall sense of continuity and identity. The mushroom lamps, the circular concrete planters by Maria Shephard, and the ubiquitous Antelope chair by Ernest Race, with its elegant steel rod frame, painted plywood seat and ball feet, animate and enliven the spaces. Sculpture made an enormous contribution to the landscape, and the cigar shaped Skylon by Powell and Moya dominating the site became a symbol of the Festival with its light elegant design. Murals were also extensively used, and the Ceramic mural by Victor Pasmore on the Regatta Restaurant, and Ben Nicholson’s at the entrance of the South Bank were especially striking. Artists benefitted enormously from the Festival and as a result of the exposure they achieved, many New Towns and Town Centres featured works of art.

‘The restful green of the planting, the simple shapes of the boulders & the smooth waters make no demands on temporarily exhausted sightseers.’ The Unicorn restaurant.

‘The restful green of the planting, the simple shapes of the boulders & the smooth waters make no demands on temporarily exhausted sightseers.’ The moat outside the Unicorn restaurant (photo by Peter Shepheard).

The Landscape of the South Bank demonstrated the significant contribution landscape architects could make to public spaces. New Towns such as Basildon Stevenage, and Harlow employed teams of landscape architects, that took on board many of the ideas for paving planting and water. Rayner Banham, the archictural correspondent, who was somewhat critical of the architecture of the Festival of Britain, calling the style flimsy and effeminate, was enthusiastic about the landscape and wrote, ‘Of all that was designed and done, it was one of the great triumphs of imaginative professional skill at the Festival. It was probably more truly English, and more genuinely innovative than much else that was more loudly praised at the time, and more thoroughly forgotten since.’

Before the Festival of Britain Landscape Architects were mainly influenced by the Arts & Crafts Tradition, and the horticultural approach advocated by Gertrude Jekyll was dominant. After the Festival, Landscape Design veered away from gardening, and concerned itself more with connecting to the natural landscape, and ecology. The lesson of the South Bank was the value of a multidisciplinary approach working together as a team. Architects, Engineers, Landscape Architects, and Artists, pooled ideas, and shared a common vision. The success of the Festival Landscape was the result of the extremely high quality of the Landscape Architects that contributed, under the enlightened guidance of Sir Hugh Casson.

Photos and captions are taken from The Things We See 7: Gardens, Hurtwood & Jellicoe, Penguin, 1953

You may also be interested in :

‘No Visible Means of Support’: 1950s Style in Britain’

To be held Saturday 24 April 2010, Clifton Hill House, University of Bristol


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