The Architecture of the Empire Exhibition 1938


The clean, modernist architecture of the Empire Exhibition of 1938 (EE38) was awe-inspiring. It was designed to be constructed quickly and easily, and to be taken apart just as fast. This article seeks to explore some aspects of the design and construction of the numerous pavilions which enabled the EE38 to move from inception, to completion, to destruction so quickly. Plans for the exhibition were being formulated in late 1936, architects were employed by 1937, and Scotland’s largest ever exhibition was opened by the King in May 1938. There were over 80 Palaces and Pavilions, representing all the colonies of Empire: palaces of engineering and industry showcasing the might of British manufacturing; as well as restaurants and tea rooms; concert halls, kiosks and fairground rides. The EE38 covered around 175 acres, and in the words of architectural historian, Neil Baxter, created “the nearest thing to a townscape of modern buildings in the inter-war period.” It was a feat of engineering and ambition of epic proportions – and in many respects, a feat that has not been equalled since.

Paisley born and Glasgow educated architect, Thomas S. Tait was the Organising Committee’s unanimous choice for the role of Architect-in-Chief. His public profile had been boosted in the years preceding the exhibition, having just completed the prestigious government commission for St Andrew’s House in Edinburgh; as well as having had a hand in the design of Sydney Harbour Bridge in the early 1930s; and Selfridges London in the early 20thcentury. By the 1930s, Tait had worked under John Burnet for many years in London firm Sir John Burnet, Tait and Lorne.

As Architect-in-Chief, Tait was required to plan the elaborate layout, to organise the design in a uniform manner, and to oversee the construction of all Palaces and Pavilions. The scale of the scheme necessitated the appointment of a team of talented architectural assistants, all of whom were selected from the ‘younger school’ of Scottish architects. Basil Spence, Jack Coia, Thomas Marwick, Margaret Brodie, A. D. Bryce, A. Esme Gordon, Launcelot Ross, Gordon Tait, and James Taylor Thomson were chosen for these roles. Each of these assistants was responsible for the production of one or more buildings, to be designed within the boundaries set by Tait. Indeed, one of the challenges faced by Tait was designing the buildings and layout to give the appearance of a homogenous whole. The extraordinary demands imposed by the Organising Committee forced Tait to break from his usually conservative methods. By adopting a system of design based on standard components, Tait ensured that the buildings, designed by different architects, would blend in modernity and scale. He stipulated that all buildings were to be constructed on either steel or timber frames; and that asbestos-cement sheeting was to be used on all buildings, as it was light, weather resistant, and easily painted. The standard cladding sheets had the added benefit of dictating the proportions of each structure.

“The internal frames, windows and entrance openings were all calculated as sub-divisions or multiples of the ‘unit’, similarly the rectangular unit became the basis for a grid, dictating both elevation and plan of each building” (Neil Baxter, 1984)

Thus, by adhering to Tait’s insistence on the use of modern materials and methods of construction, and by obeying his demand for standard components, his assistants were limited to a range of essentially modern variations which in turn produced a uniform look to the design and layout of the EE38. For the first time, there was a divergence from the standard architectural free-for-all synonymous with prior International Exhibitions, caused by every structure being designed by a different architect – instead, the Empire Exhibition at Bellahouston became known for unity, space, light and modernity.

The ground plan for the EE38 was presented to the Organising Committee in early 1937, detailing an arrangement of buildings around 3 main axes. However, Tait realised the potential of the natural topography of Bellahouston Park in creating an iconic structure; and in February 1937, he presented sketches for an impressive observation tower to be built on the summit of the hill. The height of the tower was enhanced by the hill it sat on, and gave it iconic status as the centre point of the exhibition. Indeed, Tait kept building on the sides of the hill to a minimum to emphasise the significance of the tower. This location added to the import of the Tower, as it provided views all over Glasgow from the Campsie Fells in the North to the shipyards in the South.  However, its position in a densely wooded area on top of the hill led to a mandate from the Parks Department that mature trees could not be removed. Thus, the restaurant at the Tower base became the Treetops restaurant, and living trees inside the room became a quirky design feature.

And so, Tait’s Tower was in many ways, the focal point of the 1938 Empire Exhibition. At around 300 feet it was the tallest enclosed structure ever built in Britain, and the 3,500 tons of concrete used as its foundation block are still inside Bellahouston Hill today. The tower showcased the spectrum of experiences acquired by Tait throughout his career. The stepping of oblong masses display his previous foray into the style of Dutch master, W. M. Dudok. The observation decks were reminiscent of a technique that Tait would have seen during his visit to the 1925 Exhibition in Paris, where it appeared in the clock tower of Rob Mallet-Steven’s tourism pavilion. Today, if you climb the steps towards the memorial stone unveiled by King George VI in 1937, and continue a little further up the hill, you will come to the site of Tait’s Tower – a fabulous clue to what once was; a pre-war feat of engineering, unrivalled in ambition and scale even today.

Below are images showing the position of Tait's Tower at the peak of Bellahouston Hill, overlooking the Empire Exhibition - the Atlantic Restaurant you can see in the first photo is facing towards the main cluster of Exhibition buildings at the bottom of the hill; and an image showing the Treetops Restaurant at the base of the Tower. All images are from the Lawson Collection in our photographic archives.