ARTS: DESIGN The only way was up

Churchill wanted it demolished, but 40 years on the Skylon still haunts the public imagination. Jonathan Glancey tunes in

Jonathan Glancey
Sunday 10 March 1996 00:02 GMT

THE SKYLON stood next to the Dome of Discovery on London's South Bank. A vertiginous steel and aluminium punctuation mark, shooting 296 feet into the London smog - and the Space Age - it acted as herald to the 1951 Festival of Britain.

Designed by 29-year-old Hidalgo Moya and 28-year-old Philip Powell in their recently established architectural studio in Westminster, and with a little help from the inspired structural engineer Felix Samuely, the Skylon was demolished at the end of the Festival. But it was remembered long after the exhibition that marked Britain's emergence from the world of Blitz, blackout and ration books.

The Skylon so caught the imagination of public and architects that calls for its re-erection have echoed down the 45 years since it vanished in a cloud of demolition contractors' rubble. In their recent competition proposals for revamping the South Bank, both Sir Richard Rogers and Sir Michael Hopkins planned to recreate Powell and Moya's youthful masterpiece. Rogers won the competition (the scheme is hoping for Lottery funding), but Skylon Mk 2 has been axed from the proposal on grounds of cost.

"The budget we were given for the Skylon in 1949," says Sir Philip Powell, "was pounds 14,000 - jolly cheap even then. In the end we got a bit of sponsorship from Callendar Cables and the final cost was pounds 23,000. It would be rather fun to recreate it, particularly as so many people - many of whom know it only from picture books - appear to be so fond of it. But, if it was put back up again, I worry that it would be rather lost; London's skyline was very much lower 45 years ago."

The Skylon does live on, but in smaller ways. It features boldly in "Symbols for 51", an exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall of sculptures shown on the South Bank during the Festival of Britain's hugely popular six- month run. It appears, too, in an array of new signs developed for the South Bank which will soon be popping up around the complex.

Designed for a brief encounter with the post-war public, the Skylon was never expected to make it to the end of the century. Today, the few parts of it that survive are scattered around the country. Some of these were located by Dan Cruickshank, the architectural historian who made a film on the rise and fall of Powell and Moya's tower for the BBC series One Foot in the Past.

"All that's left," says Cruickshank, "is the brass disc from the bottom of the sculpture, a brass ring engraved with the architects' names and a rather unidentifiable clump of aluminium. Winston Churchill hated the whole idea of the Festival of Britain; he saw it as some sort of socialist conspiracy. When he returned to power at the tail end of the Festival, he ensured that its pavilions, including the Skylon, were squashed to pulp."

"It's quite true," says Powell. "Churchill was beastly. How the Festival of Britain and the Skylon fitted into his vision of a Gestapo state run by Labour is quite beyond me. It was a great shame to see it demolished with such relish.

"The Skylon was rather a lovely thing. Jacko [Hildago Moya, who died in 1994] designed it to look a bit like an airship turned on its end. At night it was lit from inside by hundreds of lightbulbs, and by day, when it was windy, the air rushed through the aluminium louvres that ran up the length of its central section, and made a humming sound."

A space-age Aeolian harp? "Almost. Anyway, it was all, apparently, too much of a good thing as far as the new Tory Government was concerned. The manner in which it was demolished ensured that it could never be rebuilt."

The manner in which the Skylon was built excited The Eagle (first published in 1950) which devoted its famous colour centre-spread to a cross-section illustration of Powell and Moya's grounded rocket. It also excited the chaps from the Meteorological Office, who were concerned that, in a storm, the Skylon would act as a giant lightning conductor, shooting bolts of thunderous electricity into the Festival crowd.

"Whenever the Met Office issued a storm warning," says Sir Philip, "the Skylon was cordoned off. But there was never any real danger."

Powell and Moya won the competition to design what the Festival organisers baldly described as "a vertical feature" in 1949. "They didn't choose the name," says Sir Philip. "Nor did we. A competition was held to find one. It was won by a Mrs Shepherd Fidler. We thought it was rather daft at the time, but grew to be fond of it. You see, Jacko, whose idea the Skylon was, wasn't thinking in terms of designing for the space age; he called it 'a simple structural diagram'. That might sound rather unromantic, but what fascinated us at the time was the idea of stretching the use of modern materials to create a pointer to the South Bank that was light, airy and full of youthful confidence. Rather like the Festival itself."

! 'Symbols for 51': Royal Festival Hall (main foyer), SE1 (0171 960 4242) to 21 April.

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