Lost London – The Skylon

A sleek, futuristic, cigar-like sculpture that resembled what early science-fiction writers thought space-craft would look like, the Skylon was the centrepiece of the 1951 Festival of Britain site in South Bank and remains the enduring icon of the post-war celebration.

Designed by young architects Hidalgo Moya and Philip Powell (with the assistance of engineer Felix Samuely), the 300 foot tall Skylon, which, supported by cables, seem to hang in the air over the Thames, some 40 foot above the ground.

The structure (seen on the left of the picture of the Festival of Britain site) was dismantled in 1952 on the orders of the then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill who apparently saw it as an unwanted symbol of Clement Attlee’s Labour Government which had lost power earlier that year.

Strangely, the fate of the structure remains something of a mystery – Jude Kelly, artistic director at the Southbank Centre describes it as being “like the Loch Ness monster” in an interview with the Guardian newspaper earlier this year. “People have sightings of Skylon – they think – and bits of it, but nobody really knows what happened to it,” she said, adding that it was very hard to understand why it was thrown away.

While some fragments remain – including the base (and a model of it) which can be found at the Museum of London –  a common theory is that the rest of it was cut up and dropped into the Thames while other theories have it being buried under Jubilee Gardens or simply sold for scrap metal and “turned into ashtrays”.

There is an ongoing campaign to have the Skylon, which these days lends its name to a riverside restaurant at the Southbank Centre, rebuilt, although not necessarily in its original location.

The story of the Skylon, which sat on a site now occupied by the Southbank Centre, is told in the Museum of 1951 (see Southbank Centre website for details), open as part of the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Festival of Britain. On Tuesday, architect Nicholas Grimshaw and former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects Jack Pringle will lead a discussion at the Southbank Centre on the Skylon. For more information, follow this link.

PICTURE: John Ritchie Addison (via Wikipedia)

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