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Dome of Discovery, site of
Festival of Britain site, South Bank, London
associated engineer
Ralph Freeman
Freeman Fox & Partners
date  1950 - 1951
UK era  Modern  |  category  Building  |  reference  TQ310803
With a long escalator as its dramatic entrance, the gleaming aluminium Dome of Discovery was the focal point of the 1951 Festival of Britain. It housed galleries on various levels showing themed exhibitions — the Living World, the Physical World, the Earth, the Land, the Sea, the Sky and Outer Space.
For the project, engineer Ralph Freeman, founding partner Freeman Fox & Partners — the engineers responsible for the Sydney Harbour bridge — joined forces with architect Ralph Tubbs. This association of designers brought mixtures of youth and experience (Freeman was 70 years old and Tubbs 36) and innovation (Tubbs was a graduate of the Architectural Association) with conservative engineering expertise.
The result was a novel structure — a one-off system building — which was speedily erected at an economic price. Describing the design process, Tubbs commented that “the dome was a kind of mathematical poem”. It presented visitors with an image of the future, a science fiction world. Indeed, it was depicted in the Eagle, a sci-fi comic of the time. The Festival of Britain and its Dome brought relief from the austerity of the post WWII era, and an optimistic outlook for the future.
The Dome of Discovery was a temporary aluminium structure, 111m in diameter, standing 27m high. In 1951, it was the largest dome in the world. Considerable technological innovation was required in the production and shaping of aluminium extrusions to provide components for it.
The structure was built up using progressive sizes of triangular bays arranged in concentric circles emerging from the centre point of the dome. It was clad in sheet aluminium, giving a reflective sheen to the geometrically perfect form. A steel box-section ring beam contained the outward thrust of the dome and brought the loads down to a buttressed concrete perimeter wall.
Britain's 1952 change in governnent brought the clearing of the Festival site on the South Bank, leaving only the Royal Festival Hall.
The Dome of Discovery was open for just a matter of months but the quality of its design, the technical expertise it displayed and the sci-fi imagery it brought, plus the pure novelty of it, were all a source of inspiration. It remains a strong influence on successive generations of engineers and architects.
Architect: Ralph Tubbs
Supervising engineers: Oleg Kerensky, Gilbert Roberts
Research: ND
"The 1951 Dome of Discovery, London" by Dan Cruickshank
Architectural Review, January 1995

Dome of Discovery, site of