Skylon has become a legend. One of the main attractions at London’s 1951 Festival of Britain site, the elegant structure designed by architect Powell & Moya is surrounded by the mystique that is invariably associated with something that had great contemporary significance, for it only to be lost to subsequent generations.
But Skylon was never meant to last. Along with the equally legendary Dome of Discovery, designed by Ralph Tubbs for the South Bank, it was a temporary structure, destined for demolition at the festival’s end. Is it right, therefore, for it to be rebuilt on the original site, as is now being mooted, or will its realisation tarnish its glory as a highly inventive design from a bygone era?
A veritable ‘skypricker’ in its day, it would be dwarfed now in both respects by so many other structures in the capital, not least along the South Bank.
The London Eye, designed by Marks Barfield Architects, is the most prominent of these and, with red phone boxes and double-decker buses in decline as competitive operators take over what used to be state-controlled enterprises, it is arguably London’s strongest identifier. Even black cabs have fallen prey to sponsorship and, like medieval knights, cabs now sport individual liveries appropriate to their respective champions.
Inevitably, the arguments for bringing back Skylon hinge on updating London’s architectural history and boosting its tourist appeal. It embodies the spirit of an age of optimism and positive social change.
But you could also consider it as part of a new identity for the capital, using post-war buildings as its foundation. City skylines capture hearts and minds, from postcards to T-shirts and even in the media. Think of the Seattle skyline that appears in the titles of TV show Frasier, or the impact the sad demise of the Twin Towers has had on New York’s distinctive Manhattan skyline, immortalised by the title sequence of Woody Allen’s eponymous movie.
The Centrepoint office block and BT Tower are both West End landmarks – the latter now animated at night courtesy of Rufus Leonard and Imagination (DW 1 April). In the City we have a host of contenders, from the NatWest Tower to Lloyds of London. But Foster and Partners’ outstanding SwissRe headquarters – nicknamed the ‘gherkin’ or ‘lipstick’ – wins for me.
Across the river is another Foster special – the Greater London Authority headquarters that is home to London Mayor Ken Livingstone. And then, of course, there is the London Eye. Would these edifices work collectively as an identity for London – perhaps with Skylon as the centrepiece? It might be worth a try.
See also Vox Pop, page 11.