In 1951 David Eccles, the Tory minister for works, declared he was “unwilling to become the caretaker of empty and deteriorating buildings”. He was referring to the Dome of Discovery and other structures on the South Bank that formed the park for the Festival of Britain.
The incoming Conservative government saw these buildings as “three-dimensional socialist propaganda” and promptly tore them down and sold the materials for scrap. Ralph Tubbs’ Dome of Discovery and Powell & Moya’s Skylon were to become commemorative paper knives.
However, Dome: Ralph Tubbs and the Festival of Britain at Chelsea Space seeks to re-establish this building in popular imaginations. The exhibition brings together photos of the dome and of the architect’s work and family life, drawings and Festival of Britain memorabilia.
The festival was understood as a symbol of a new Britain; it would showcase the principles of urban design that would feature in the post-war rebuilding of London and new towns after the second world war.
Tubbs said that that there was to be “for the first time, instead of a few freakish examples of modern style, a whole quarter where the 20th-century Englishman can wander about in a world of his own making”. In the exhibition, photographs of the Dome mid-construction line the hallway up to the main space, attempting to recreate this sense of excitement and anticipation.
From the collection in this exhibition it is hard to get a real understanding of the interior architecture of the dome, as there aren’t any photographs of the interior space, nor many of the dome from the ground. Whether this is intentional or just unfortunate, it prompts a sense of frustration. This frustration is a necessary outcome of an exhibition that tries to convey the brilliance of a building that should never have been destroyed.
However, it provides a poignant insight into the work of an architect; alongside the mountains of plans and the playful concept sketches are a selection of letters that document Tubbs’ struggle to first of all see his building realised and then to save it.
Tubbs’ son, also an architect, said that out of all his projects, the dome “was Ralph’s greatest accomplishment and gave him the most satisfaction of all his projects” and that its immediate destruction “considerably upset him”.
Knowing this, the memorabilia brings a further sense of pathos to the exhibition, despite its original celebratory function. At the time, the iconography of the dome was a symbol of a “brighter future” whereas in this context the posters and postcards highlight the disappointment.
Parallels can be drawn between “Ralph’s Tub” and the Millennium Dome (the former was 365ft diameter, the latter 365m) that was proposed just before Ralph died in 1996. Tubbs was rightly sceptical of the scheme as, unlike his dome, which celebrated people and ideas for the future, the Millennium Dome was to honour the passing of time.
It is also fitting that an exhibition professing the legacy of a piece of “celebratory architecture” is held during the debate as to what shall be done with the architecture that hosted our latest public spectacle.
Dome is at Chelsea Space until October 20.
By Ishbel Mull