Surfing the sky, freefalling into the digital world

The bright and futuristic 1951 Festival of Britain site arises from ashes of WW2

In 2011, I was faced with the challenge of how to resurrect a lost London landmark three weeks before an international press launch: the majestic Skylon.

The Skylon rose out of capital’s war ravaged landscape in 1951. It was a luminous sculpture, a jaw dropping 90 metres high and was built with cutting edge technology. It offered a glimpse into the future with its alien beauty. But this glimpse was snatched away when it was ripped from its foundations and dismantled on the direct orders of Winston Churchill. Yet, even with this tragic history, I didn’t forsee that I would face a similar fear of the new in my efforts to commemorate the Skylon sixty years later.

The Skylon at night with Big Ben in the background

In 2011, I was overseeing the delivery of Museum of ’51, a temporary exhibition that celebrated the story of the Festival of Britain. The Festival was an epic event that sought to cheer people up after years of loss and war. It included a showcase of the pioneering architecture, design and industrial innovation such as the Dome of Discovery and the creation of the Royal Festival Hall.

The entrance to the 2011 Museum of ’51 exhibition included a salvaged rotting old sign from the original Festival found in someone’s garden shed

Fast forward to the anniversary celebrations 60 years on, we raided personal archives and attics across the UK to borrow a huge array of archive materials and objects from the original event. But the museum was missing one crucial element: we had nothing on the Skylon. It had been smashed to pieces and sold for scrap and the rest chucked in the River Thames, lost forever.

In search of an answer, I approached Alex Haw of the design practice Atmos, to re-capture the Skylon in some way for the Museum. They came back with an incredible proposal to create an immersive environment called “Skysurfing” that enabled Museum visitors to virtually climb inside the structure and scale it to the very top. Very few people had scaled the original Skylon except for the architects and engineers that created it, although rumours have it a drunk festival goer broke in for a dare, climbed up the internal ladder and tied his trousers to the top.

Atmos’s digital reconstruction of the lights within the Skylon that illuminated the sculpture

Atmos explained their motivation and concept:

“The skylon was a magnificent icon, but it was always a distant object admired from afar – like the sky it adorned, abstract and remote. Its delicate bulge contained a secret sanctuary that no visitor ever accessed; 18 million people never saw inside the most wonderful creation of them all, even though it was almost see-through. The original architects, Powell & Moya, were only 27 when they won the competition, and lavished youthful energy on beautifully resolved details high in the sky that never met the naked eye – until now.

The floor based projector box, a striking design in itself by Atmos

Skysurfing resurrects this lost monument, and offers an unprecedented journey through it. A large and immersive projection takes the visitor on a simple virtual slingshot journey up through the very centre of the Skylon, on a voyage of discovery of an architectural space that has never before been open to the public, revealing the exact opposite of what we always knew about it – its innards rather than its skin. The skylon was a groundbreaking early experiment in structural tensegrity, but it was also an astonishing piece of luminous sculpture – and thus well represented by the fond light of the exhibition’s projector.”

Visitors looked up to ceiling to see the centre of the Skylon and were catapulted virtually to the top of the sculpture

Their plan was ambitious but brilliant and I was hugely excited. But my enthusiasm was quickly put in check by scepticism from my colleagues who felt it was too ‘geeky’ . Some felt a small traditional cardboard model of the Skylon would suffice. Many voiced their opinion that it was a museum of nostalgic ‘real things’, of trinkets, souvenirs and furniture. And to get flash with experimental new artworks was out of sync. Sometimes everyone falls in love with an idea straight away, with others I have to be more persuasive. Especially when this was a digital reconstruction that didn’t yet exist. But the original architecture of the Skylon was translucent and it made absolute sense to me that projected light should be the medium we used to re-create its ghostly presence.

Myself and the journalist Cathy Heffernan Interacting with the installation whilst at the Vintage Festival (directed by Hemingway Design)

The Museum of ’51 had one of the tightest deadlines I have ever worked with. 2011 was the year of William and Kate’s nuptials so the opening of the Festival of Britain anniversary programme was put under further pressure out of fear it would be eclipsed by the media coverage of the Royal Wedding. We got there in the end through determined team effort at the heart of which were two gifted archivists Georgia Monk and Emily Churchill and the unflappable design collaboration of Tilly, Gerardine and Wayne Hemingway.

The team was also overseeing the restoration of a Patchwork of a Century at the time, a precious handmade relic from the 1951 celebrations which references The Great Exhibition of 1851. We faced a desperate effort to build a huge display box within budget and on time. At last a suitable box maker was found, only for a cleaner to scratch the entire surface with a scourer a few days after the Museum opened. With so many other challenges in realising the more conventional Museum content, a lot of people thought I was mad to pursue something high risk and experimental with the Skylon.

Meanwhile in another part of the museum, my husband William, a filmmaker and I made some short films of artists and architects that were involved back in 1951. They recounted the stressful but exhilarating last minute experience of making the original Festival of Britain happen on a shoestring budget with little resources after years of harrowing war. It was motivational to listen to their interviews at the time, and my own lesser stresses with the Museum of ’51 were quickly put into perspective.

Skysurfing, despite its fast and bumpy freefall landing into the Museum of ’51, remains one of the bravest commissions of my career. It continues to inspire me to explore the possibilities of digital invention. It is a work that for some requires a few repeat watches to understand and appreciate. Yet despite its initial controversy, it was a huge hit with children who loved playing and interacting with the projection light and shadows.

Alex Haw, the director of Atmos is extraordinarily dedicated to the creation of unique and beautiful things. It was a privilege to get the opportunity to work with him and his studio.

In the last few years Atmos have grown to be a critically acclaimed award winning outfit whose pioneering talents are on par with that of the 1951 architects of the Skylon. Their latest project with the Roundhouse has achieved a much deserved £30,000 grant from the Arts Council. You can explore and discover their awe-inspiring portfolio here.

I wonder what would have happened if Winston Churchill had left the Skylon standing. If its glowing presence had remained, perhaps the whole of central London’s architectural landscape would have evolved differently. There have been campaigns to re-build the sculpture, so who knows maybe it will one day return to reclaim its place and jostle for attention alongside the other old and new giants of London’s skyline.

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