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Sunday 24 August 2003
11.15 am, repeated Friday at 9.00 am

Sue MacGregor talks to designers and architects from the 1951 Festival of Britain about the impact it had on their lives and the lives of the nation.

Back l-r: Leonard Manasseh, Terence Conran, Jean Symons; Front l-r: Sue MacGregor, Robin Day, Lucienne Day.

Sue MacGregor gathers together some of the architects and designers responsible for the Festival of Britain, which took place in 1951, a time of drabness and austerity as the country struggled in the years immediately following the Second World War.

The South Bank in London became home to a collection of futuristic buildings which displayed the best design the country had to offer. Most famous of all was the 300-foot Skylon, the vertical rocket which soared above the Festival site. People danced the night away below it and Skylon hats were a talking point at fashionable parties. But the sceptics - mindful of the country's balance-of-payments crisis - pointed out that the Skylon was, "Just like modern Britain - no visible means of support".

The style of the Festival was very different from what had gone before. The organisers took a deliberate decision that all the designers involved should be young - a new generation for a new Britain.

Sir Terence Conran remembers drably dressed people arriving at the Festival, but "they started smiling and laughing and it was all jolly and they couldn't believe in a worn, grey, bomb-damaged Britain, that something like this could happen". He remembers designing an exhibit of 3-D plastic letters with beetles, butterflies and caterpillars inside, "The letters spelled out the heading Natural World but unfortunately they kept bursting in the sunlight and releasing an awful smell".

Leonard Manasseh, a young architect originally taken on to design a luxury restaurant with a glass floor built out over the Thames, was put on to design the lavatories instead. It was a bit of a come-down, but he felt he ought to do it, and in the end he was also responsible for a bar which allowed him to showcase the latest modern designs with lots of saddle-topped bar stools and a huge mural. He says the Festival was "a terrific boost for modern architecture" and describes the Skylon as "An absolute work of genius". He sums up the ethos of the Festival, "There really was a feeling around that we were creating a new Britain - things were going to be marvellous".

Husband and wife team Robin and Lucienne Day have been described as the Posh and Becks of the Festival scene. A pioneer of modern furniture design, Robin Day was responsible for the seats in the Royal Festival Hall. He describes the event as "A shot in the arm for design generally", but he also remembers standing in his section in the Homes and Gardens pavilion and hearing one visitor's comment, "Look at those chairs! Can you imagine anyone being able to live with them in their home?"

Lucienne Day designed textiles, some of which were displayed alongside her husband's furniture. She describes her designs as "Quite way-out really" and remembers the thrill of being able to produce designs which factories would actually be able to make, now that their looms were no longer devoted to producing blackout material.

Jean Symons was a young architecture student who managed to get a post working on the building of the Festival Hall. She was the only woman working on the construction site, "I realised I'd seen lots of buildings being bombed but none being built". She remembers the excitement of being able to work with materials like glass and lightweight concrete that had been scarce for many years and recalls being stuck in a lift with all the VIPs on the day of the opening, "It was the most brilliant conclusion one could have asked for!"

Millions of people visited the Festival but there were criticisms, not least from Churchill who fumed that it was all just "three-dimensional, socialist propaganda". This was a time when bomb-damaged Britain desperately needed new housing, schools and hospitals and many saw the Festival's architectural designs as something of a distraction. Many felt that its emphasis on British design failed to show the new minimalist designs emerging in Scandinavia and Italy.

Jonathan Woodham, Professor of Design History at the University of Brighton, talks about opposition to the Festival and the extent to which the ideas on show influenced the homes of ordinary people at the time; Jonathan Glancey, Architecture and Design Editor, The Guardian, talks about the style of the Festival and its effect on designers today; and science fiction writer Brian Aldiss remembers being an early visitor and being inspired by the futuristic architecture of the Dome of Discovery.

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