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Designing Britain 1945 - 1975 > Exhibiting Britain > Expo '67 > Expo Britain Today
 
EXPO '67 BRITAIN TODAY BY JAMES GARDNER

BRIEF
As the title of the section suggests, the COI wanted its designer to present to Expo visitors an image of the Britain of 1967. In its contemporaneity this would serve as a contrast to the other sections but would also function as a pivot in the pavilion’s narrative. Visitors followed a specific chronological sequence through the building so ‘Britain Today’ served both as a summary of British progress to date and a prelude to future developments. Which designer could fulfill this brief?
 
WHY GARDNER?
The designer chosen to execute the ‘Britain Today’ section was James Gardner. His work at Britain Can Make It proved to be the beginning of an illustrious career which included the design of the Festival Gardens in Battersea for the Festival of Britain and the QE2. He had also designed the British Pavilion at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. By 1967, he was, perhaps, Britain’s leading exhibition designer.

Given this track record it is not surprising that Gardner should have been recruited to contribute to Expo ‘67. He recalled that he was chosen because his track record proved
 
he was house trained and, from a design point of view, had a habit of coming up with a right answer
Gardner, The Artful Designer, 342.
 
DESIGN PROBLEMS
In approaching the design of the ‘Britain Today’, the task facing Gardner was less architectural than conceptual. The Pavilion was purpose built. Its architect, Basil Spence, had created a large open space into which Gardner’s section would be placed and the theme of the section was established within the distinct narrative of the whole project. The difficulty for Gardner lay, at least initially, in the theme or script from which he was first commissioned to design a display.

Gardner recalled how he was visited by a representative of the COI who asked him to design this section of the Pavilion and presented him with a script which had already been commissioned from a Professor of English at the University of Oxford. This, he commented drolly, aired:
 
…all the old cliches: we have the Mother of Parliaments, cricket on village greens, Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon, and bagpipes in the Highlands. He had added for good measure, that we love children…
Ibid, 342.
 
Gardner was not impressed and turned the offer down. It is a measure of his status as a designer that within a week the COI’s man returned with a new offer. The cliched script would be abandoned if Gardner would take on the project. He agreed providing that he had a completely free hand to develop script and content. This was given and he set to work.

In preparing the script which would ‘choreograph’ the content and format of the display the idea that contemporary Britain was in a state of flux was uppermost in Gardner’s mind. It was this that he wanted to convey, not the whimsical vision of Britain which the Oxford don’s script had outlined.
 
We are a hotch-potch of the old and new, the traditional and the modern…We still have stately homes and cottages, old universities and Eton, but we also have council flats, redbrick universities and technical colleges ...
Gardner quoted in Anon, ‘Designing Britain’s Show’, Illustrated London News, 29.4.67, 21)
 
Gardner wanted to avoid what he described as the ‘bland generalisations’ (Gardner, Artful Designer, 343) that were commonplace in international exhibitions and here worked according to the principle that whenever any of his ideas were given approval by the COI he would abandon them and start again.
 
DESIGN SOLUTION
The ‘Britain Today’ section of the British Pavilion was intended to confound the expectations of visitors both in its content and its form. As Gardner put it, his aim was ‘to offer quirky reinterpretations of people’s expectations’ (Ibid, 345).

Occupying the main hall of the Pavilion, Gardner’s display was designed as a series of themed film sets. These were placed on a sort of catwalk, thus visitors could view the sets in the round. Each section offered a contrasting view of contemporary Britain, a theme which was established as soon as visitors entered ’Britain Today’.

The first thing visitors saw was a three-dimensional portrait of a British family. Composed of larger-than-life figures, sculpted by Astrid Zydower, it depicted a ‘stiff-upper-lipped’ country family standing in its drawing room. This ‘corny stereotype’ of Britishness, Gardner intended as a trick to lull visitors into a false sense of security about what to expect from the display as a whole. He noted, ‘viewing a national presentation, people feel rather superior when you give them what they expect to see…’ (Ibid, 345).

But, on closer inspection, this stereotype was carefully undermined by Gardner’s placing of the figures and through his use of explanatory text. To signal the emergence of the generation gap the figures of the parents and older son were placed to one side of the room, the younger children to the other. Visitors then read the caption which declared:
 
the English, are they…
HYPOCRITES
POMPOUS ASSES
DEVIOUS EXPLOITERS
STIFF NECKS
STUFFED SHIRTS
OR JUST SHY?
 
Visitors then walked around a series of sets which developed this theme of the contrast between traditional and modern Britain. Each used Zydower’s sculpted figures arranged into vignettes of British behaviour. Thus, for example, a section entitled ‘D.I.Y’ depicted a traditional English obsession, gardening, alongside a newer preoccupation, a couple cleaning their car (subtitled ‘We love our car’). The car chosen was, of course, a union-jack painted mini, perhaps the ultimate sign of 1960s Britain.

Other sections included ‘There’s no place like home’ in which films and pictures of suburban houses and new council flats were intermingled; a section on fashion and music which featured backdrops of the Beatles and mannequins wearing Mary Quant designed clothes.

It was not just the content of the exhibition which was intended to remind visitors of Britain’s modernity. Since Britain Can Make It, the technology of exhibition display had changed dramatically and Gardner had a whole host of new tools to use in representing Britain. Here Gardner made particular use of sound and image – still and moving – to bring each set to life. The display which dealt with housing, for example, featured film of the construction of new buildings projected onto the backdrops, whilst a vignette of modern youth was accompanied by a recording of a student discussion. Elsewhere visitors could walk through a soundscape which included pop music and snatches of Gilbert and Sullivan or the twittering of birds. The piece-de-resistance, and an element of high camp, was the song ‘tea for two’ ‘played’ by a teapot.

As an adjunct to this display Gardner elected to end his section with what he called ‘Art Gallery Art’, a display of contemporary painting. In keeping with his iconoclastic approach to content, he again decided to eschew official taste as represented by the Arts Council and chose the work from ‘the more adventurous art schools’ (Ibid, 348), all watched over by a Zydower sculpture of a ‘quizzical art critic’ (Ibid).
 
Zydower adjusting models ESD00642 Zydower adjusting models

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General view ESD00640 General view

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'Family' ESD00649 'Family'

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'DIY' + 'Our Car'
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'DIY' + 'Our Car'
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ESD00641 & ESD00644 'DIY' + 'Our Car'
 
'Fashion' ESD00643 'Fashion'

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'Pop Music' ESD00645 'Pop Music'

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'Cathedral' ESD00647 'Cathedral'

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Little boy ESD00646 Little boy

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'DIY' ESD00639 'DIY'

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Gardner and sculptures ESD00660 Gardner and sculptures

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