The Empire Exhibition, 1938

This was the last of the great exhibitions of Empire. It was a spectacular showcase of the power and ingenuity of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, presenting a modern and united image of the British Empire to the world. This is particularly significant when the exhibition is considered in the context of contemporary current affairs. By 1936 when exhibition planning began, German re-armament was well underway (in violation of the Treaty of Versailles). By 1938 Hitler had successfully expanded into Austria without firing a shot. And by the time of the opening ceremony in May 1938, Hitler had moved his army to the Czech border, intimidating Czech President Benes, and underlining his expansionist intentions in Europe. The speed at which the 1938 Empire Exhibition was put together, along with its scale and modernity, could be viewed as a response to Nazi Germany’s threatening behaviour – a message to Hitler perhaps, illustrating the unity of the British Empire and demonstrating the UK’s resources and progress

Alternatively, when viewed in a local context, the Empire Exhibition was a beacon of light and hope in an otherwise dark and grimy city. The interwar years in Glasgow, and Govan in particular, had been marred by economic depression. The once prosperous shipyards saw fewer contracts; and strikes meant that work often ground to a halt. Unemployment was rife and many Glaswegians had spent years on the dole without reasonable opportunity for employment. The 1938 Exhibition presented new opportunities; it sent a message that Scotland was modernising and cutting edge – it gave Glaswegians a view into a brighter future.

Whatever your view on the motivations behind this significant event, it must be regarded as just that – significant. The Exhibition was a symbol of the determination of a very large number of Scots to restore prosperity and employment to Scotland. It was a showcase of cutting edge architecture and the talented architects working in Scotland in the 1930s. To the visitor, the 1938 Empire Exhibition provided an escape from the dark, grimy streets of Glasgow. About 75% of Glasgow in the 1930s was lit by flickering gas lamps, and many buildings were coated in the soot of industrial chimneys; whereas the Exhibition was brand new, clean and modern. The cascading fountains, the clean cut, white and colourful buildings, electric light shows, and diverse representations of world culture was in stark contrast to the city left behind at the gates.

There were 80 Pavilions on the 175 acre site of Bellahouston Park and the whole Exhibition was put together very quickly given its ambition and scale. This led to the decision that rather than run a design competition to win the opportunity to design a pavilion, an architect-in-chief should be appointed to expedite the process. The unanimous choice for this role was Scottish architect, Thomas S. Tait, of the firm Sir John Burnet, Tait and Lorne. Tait chose a team of nine preeminent Scottish architects to assist him in planning the elaborate layout and organising the design. Thus, Basil Spence, Jack Coia, Thomas Marwick, Margaret Brodie, A. D. Bryce, A. Esme Gordon, Launcelot Ross, Gordon Tait, and James Taylor Thomson were brought together.

Tait also had to meet a variety of architectural challenges in the organisation of the 1938 Empire Exhibition. The buildings had to be inexpensive; they had to be rapidly and easily constructed; and the 80 pavilions visually, had to form a homogenous whole. The buildings could be divided into 3 types: pavilions of the dominions and colonies; buildings representing life and culture in the British Isles; and buildings which demonstrated British achievement in engineering and manufacturing. By adopting a design system based on standard components e.g. materials, component sizes, and colours, Tait was able to meet these challenges. For example, he opted to use asbestos-cement cladding on all the buildings as it was light, strong, weather-resistant and usable on both timber and steel frames. It had the added benefit of being easily painted – so Tait’s designs could be coloured in a uniform manner.

The Exhibition was opened by King George VI on the 3rdMay 1938 at Ibrox Stadium; and in its 6 month run attracted over 12.5 million visitors from around the world. Below is a picture of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth walking around Bellahouston Park following the Kings speech at Ibrox; and an aerial photograph of the Exhibition to give an idea of the enormous feat of engineering required to stage it.