Celebration of British Culture at the Festival of Britain


Photo: B. Alter

The original Festival of Britain in 1951 was a huge celebration of British culture, design, art, science and ingenuity. It happened at a time when Britain began to emerge from the austerity of post-war years and heralded a new and hopeful way of thinking about public life.

Now 60 years later, its anniversary is being celebrated on the banks of the Thames in London. But these are different times--back to austerity--and it is a mix of nostalgia for the 50's and recognition of sustainability and environmentalism in the future.


Photo: B. Alter

Taking as it its theme "The Lands", different parts of the South Bank are being transformed into themed areas: there is a seaside beach made of 48 tons of sand, a row of 14 artist-designed beach huts, a coal mining installation and a rooftop garden.

The rooftop garden is created in partnership with Cornwal[s Eden Project. It is a raised bed vegetable garden, complete with scarecrow, showing that a roof can be both productive and attractive. Overlooking the river, there are over 90 varieties of wildflowers in the garden, a celebration of the diversity of British flora, attracting insects and butterflies while providing nectar for bees from the hives on Royal Festival Hall's roof. There are fruit trees and allotment gardens for the local community groups who are maintaining the whole garden. It is hoped that they can keep the garden going in future years. There is even a cafe made out of a recycled container--something that was hardly around in the '50's.


Photo: B. Alter

At the river, there is another garden featuring a typical seaside planting with wild seaside cacti and grasses and an old row boat. There is also a long beach for the children to play in, and adults too.


Photo: B. Alter

A glistening chamber of polished coal from working mines in Wales appears on another terrace. Created by two environmental artists, it is a monument to the coal industry which flourished and has now declined, bringing poverty to rural communities. The outside looks like a rough bunker that has been abandoned, but the inside is smooth and polished. It is both part of the past and the future.


Photo: B. Alter

The staircase, linking two levels, represents the addition of a new architecture to the site: one made of recycled objects. It opens up a new route to the site and a new view of the space below. It is constructed out of shipping containers and old wood pallets. Apparently, "water pumped from the ventilation system in Royal Festival Hall is diverted through the staircase to irrigate a planting scheme on the newly formed terraces."


Photo: B. Alter

In the background a collage of sounds taken from across Britain's landscape through the seasons reverberates across the area. Using an array of speakers and audio tracks, two artists have recreated the acoustic atmospheres of rural Britain, from the spring woodland birdsong to the mating call of grey seals in mid-winter. The audio experience gets a bit lost amidst all the action taking place but it's yet another layer of interest in this huge artistic undertaking.

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