Lost London – The Dome of Discovery…

The Skylon and the Dome of Discovery at the 1951 Festival of Britain PICTURE: Peter Benton (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0/image cropped)

Built for the post-war Festival of Britain in 1951, the Dome of Discovery was a temporary exhibition building located in South Bank.

Designed by architect Ralph Tubbs, the dome was, with a diameter of 365 feet and a height of 93 feet, the largest in the world at the time. It was located next to the Skylon, another iconic structure built for the festival.

The prefabricated dome, which was made from aluminium and concrete, was filled with galleries which housed exhibitions around the overarching theme of discovery. The display was grouped under eight different sections including “the land”, “the sea”, “sky” and “outer space”. The dome also contained a 50 foot long mural on the theme of discovery by artist Keith Vaughan.

The dome was dismantled just 11 months after it was installed and sold for scrap metal (despite pleas from Tubbs and proposals for it to be relocated to places as diverse as Sao Paulo in Brazil and Coventry in England). Some of the metal was apparently made into souvenirs including commemorative paper knives.

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)