The Skylon and Churchill Gardens: Contrasting Architectural Visions in Postwar Britain

51P603uzClLOn the 5th of May 1920, John Hidalgo Moya was born in Los Gatos, California. Some 83 years later, on the 5th of May 2003, Sir Arnold Joseph Philip Powell died in London. The two men were architects and founders of the Powell & Moya Architect Practice responsible for the design of Churchill Gardens in Pimlico, London – a complex of 1,600 flats in 32 blocks that house 5,000 people. The estate was developed between 1946 and 1962, replacing Victorian terraced houses badly damaged during the Blitz. It is notable as the only housing project completed under the 1943 County of London Plan prepared by Sir Leslie Patrick Abercrombie. The Plan “was purposely published in an attractive format before the end of the war with the ideological intent of inspiring in an exhausted and impoverished populace some confidence in the future. It was also projected as the necessary foundation of an immediate and full postwar recovery.” (Annabel Jane Wharton, Building the Cold War: Hilton International Hotels and Modern Architecture)

The ambitious Abercrombie’s Plan, and subsequently the development of the Pimlico estate, raised concerns about the financial aspect of the whole enterprise. After all, the war had a terrible effect on the British economy. But this and similar undertakings were promoted not only for their utilitarian value but a symbolic one too. For example, when asked by a secretary about the cost of the Abercrombie Plan, Lord Latham answered: “Yes, it will certainly cost a great deal, but not more than unplanned building and a lot less than war. In a way, you know, this is London’s war, against decay and dirt and inefficiency. In the long run, plans such as this is [sic] the cheapest way to fight those enemies. What a grand opportunity it is. If we miss this chance to rebuild London, we shall have missed one of the great moments of history and shown ourselves unworthy of our victory.” (John R. Gold, Modernism: Modern Architects and the Future City, 1928-53)

Building_the_Cold_War2_580_773Powell & Moya became also famous for designing the Skylon – the rather controversial “Vertical Feature” that served as a symbol of the 1951 Festival of Britain. The Festival itself “… was one of the most impressive displays of science and technology the country had yet seen, and the two symbols that are still most readily associated with it, the Skylon and the Dome of Discovery, were structures that embodied ideas about science and its centrality to the country’s welfare and future. …The essential background to the Festival was the post-war Labour government and the creation of the welfare state. In the foreground were the new Councils and cultural bodies set up with the aim of revitalizing British life. The idea of a 1951 Festival was first mooted in 1943, but emerged as a definite proposition in 1947-48, in part to commemorate the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851, and in part to signal a relief from unparalleled austerity.” (Sophie Forgan, Festivals of Science and the Two Cultures: Science, Design and Display in the Festival of Britain, 1951,The British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 31, No. 2, Science and the Visual, June, 1998).  

The Skylon was a three-hundred-foot, futuristic-looking, cigar-shaped aluminium suspended structure. Located on London’s South Bank between Westminster Bridge and Hungerford Bridge, it attracted thousands of visitors, who by standing on a metal ring embedded in the floor beneath the monument could get an impression of the whole construction levitating above their heads. The base of the monument was almost 15 metres (50 feet) from the ground. The frame was clad in aluminium louvers lit from within at night. As spectacular as it was, the opinions on the Skylon were 5190gCE+mNLdivided. “For the architectural critic J.M. Richards, the Skylon was “a first-rate demonstration of the romantic potentialities of twentieth-century building science, imaginatively exploited”; yet what these potentialities were was anything but clear. J.B. Priestley described the Skylon as “a glittering riddle of a symbol, like some genie’s device in the Arabian Nights,” while an anonymous critic for the New Statesman and Society went even further: “No, Sir, the Skylon has no purpose. It is not functional in any way. It does not light the Festival; it burns with its own inner light. It’s not even a phallic symbol or totem pole. It has no social significance; it doesn’t stand for Democracy, Freedom, Progress, or the Future Happiness of Man. It doesn’t stand at all; it could stand on the ground but it doesn’t. It’s like everything else in the Festival – a huge lively joke, a tribute only to the spirit of nonsense and creative laughter.” (Richard Quentin Donald Hornsey, The Spiv and the Architect: Unruly Life in Postwar London)

Due to these critical opinions, as well as concerns about the possible danger to visitors from lightning-strikes to the Skylon, the entire construction was dismantled in 1952 after the Exhibition ended. But there were also hidden political motives behind this decision, as Winston Churchill dismissed the Festival and its abstract architectural structure as propaganda by the preceding Labour Government of their vision of a new socialist Britain. And so the Skylon, the contemporary equivalent of the London Eye in popularity, had to be removed. Churchill Gardens estate, on the other hand, was designated as a conservation area in 1990 and is still a home to many Londoners.