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The Royal Festival Hall: A Home for ‘Being and Nothingness’

Part 1 Dissertation 2014
Shaban Ladha
Ulster University Belfast UK
Architecture refuses to confine itself as a mere metaphor in the realm of philosophical debate. The discourse on existence and perceptual consciousness is one in which both architecture and existentialist philosophy share a similar language. Philosophy in this instance, takes the shape of architecture. Architecture becomes a means with which philosophy becomes visible.

This paper explores the consciousness of being and the role architecture can play in distorting the perception of ‘being’, thus it defines a reality. The ideas put forward by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) in his 1943 book ‘Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology’ provides a critical framework with which British post-war socio-democratic ‘welfare state’ architecture can be analysed.

Here, it becomes important to examine political agendas, and to investigate how architecture was used as a tool to convince the public of a new ‘superstructure of legitimate expectations.’(1) In an attempt to change the superstructure, architecture was used to support a shift in perception towards equal social worth that spanned the class system. It is here where attention is needed on the 1951 ‘Festival of Britain’ and in particular on Robert Matthews’ and Leslie Martin’s 1951 ‘Royal Festival Hall’, which has been described as an ‘exemplar for the architectural expression of the welfare state’(2).

The spatial qualities inherent in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall display what Satres’ theories describe. The large open space of the foyer has a freedom and intricacy of flow and becomes a setting for reflexive perception. This main space does not emphasise boundaries or limitations of the foyer with its relationship to its surroundings. The sense of a transparency allows one to engage in the act of seeing, seeing others who are engaged in an identical act.

This arguably transforms the Royal Festival Hall from merely functioning as an auditorium towards a space that begins to act as a social condenser, a space that appears void of any commanding authority. A mask created by the welfare state so the British public could enjoy the illusion of his or hers ‘equal social worth’.(3)

(1) T.H Marshall, Citizenship and Social Class (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1950), 58.
(2) Adrian Forty, "Being or Nothingness: Private Experience and Public Architecture in Post-War Britain," Architectural History 38 (1995): 32.
(3) Ibid., 31.

Shaban Ladha

Tanja Poppelreuter
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