Magazine article The Spectator

Outgrowing Solemnity

Magazine article The Spectator

Outgrowing Solemnity

Article excerpt


This week sees the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Festival of Britain on the South Bank. Although born too late even to have been given a souvenir from it, it has been on the edge of my consciousness for many years.

Anyone visiting the South Bank in later years is bound to ask how it fell into such a slough of despond after such a promising start, and anyone visiting the Dome last year might equally well have asked how in the course of 50 years we could, as a nation, have so badly lost the sense of how to put on a good show. The generation of architects and designers today is no less spirited than those predecessors who made buildings `hang in the air and astonish' in 1951, but it seems that, for the Dome, those chosen were prevented even from going through the motions of flying, with results that were repetitive and literal.

As the Festival summer passed its zenith, the result of the competition for a new Coventry Cathedral was announced, and the building was consecrated 11 years later. There were many scathing comments that Basil Spence, whose Sea and Ships Pavilion was one of the great successes of the South Bank, had produced a `pavilion of religious art'. The Cathedral repeated the popular success of the South Bank, but opinion about it has remained divided.

Should Coventry have learnt more from the domesticated, feminised and anti-monumental qualities of the exhibition? Sir Gerald Barry liked to quote from the Duc de Sully, `Les Anglais s'amusent tristement', and he saw the purpose of the Festival primarily as a lesson in taking pleasure. The architects who built the South Bank made a kind of sacred precinct of play against a world of statistics and form-filling. `It had a certain spiritual quality that is worth remembering,' as the film, Brief City, produced by the Observer to commemorate the South Bank, said in 1952.

A series of conferences organised by ACE (Art and Christianity Enquiry) during the course of this year has been looking to find the spiritual quality in the Cathedral, whose function and symbolism is no necessary guarantee of the numinous. The Dutch historian Caroline van Eck pointed to the demand in Bishop Gorton's brief that the building should seize `architecturally on those truths [of the Christian Faith] and thrust them upon the man who comes in from the street'. …

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