Onwards and upwards

Festival Wing and a prayer: new plans for London’s Southbank cultural centre

It has been more than half a century since radical architects at what was then the London County Council designed the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and Hayward Gallery complex on the South Bank, between the existing Royal Festival Hall and, beyond Waterloo Bridge, the site of what was to be the later National Theatre. For half of their lifespan, the buildings have been seen as a bit of a problem: ugly, intractable. Starting in 1989, other architects- Terry Farrell, Richard Rogers – came up with successive plans to make them work, or look, better. Bar the drawing and talking, little was ever done. The Brutalist concrete assemblage, complete with high-level walkways and terraces, has occasionally been fiddled with but otherwise left alone. Now comes the next big move – a £120m project to make this part of the South Bank’s promenade as large and impressive and well used as the two cultural palaces on either side of it. This is nothing if not ambitious.

Necessary, however. The thorough refurbishment of the listed RFH – the second in its lifetime, which began with its 1951 opening, modified and extended a decade later – was finished in 2007. That cost £118m. The National Theatre, opened in 1976 and also listed, is now already in the throes of its second big revamp. That leaves the QEH/Purcell Room/Hayward ensemble as the only part of the sequence effectively untouched, unloved, unlisted since it was built. Not only is it decaying (the Hayward’s roof is a sieve, for instance) but the foyers are cramped, equipment antiquated, connections to the other buildings are almost absurdly difficult, and their ground levels are all but unused. As Jude Kelly, artistic director of the Southbank Centre, puts it: “Doing nothing is not an option.” What she IS planning to do however, is a lot more than I expected. The designs, by architects Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (FCBS), are surprisingly big and bold but also, in the way of well-thought-out schemes, somehow obvious. But we have only the broad design intent: the detail is not there yet.

Essentially they drop two big steel-framed glass buildings into the main empty spaces: a tall one between the art gallery and concert hall halves of the complex, and a lower, longer one at right angles to it, running alongside Waterloo Bridge. A broad staircase with lifts is made, directly opposite the original main downstream entrance to the RFH where now you see only a service yard, to take you up to the new entrance gallery. From there you’ll be able to go straight to all the venues in the complex including the British Film Institute. Perched above this foyer, in a steel and glass box, will be a large public rehearsal room for the Southbank Centre’s many resident and visiting orchestras. Sized to take a full-size symphony orchestra and choir plus small audience, with its upper two storeys acoustically lined, this is the skyline element intended to give the complex the presence it has hitherto lacked. Slightly lower than the National’s main flytower, slightly higher than the curved green roof of the RFH, this is putting music on display. Thus the existing disparate elements are tied into one building, which is then given a name: “The Festival Wing”. The name comes from the 1951 Festival of Britain, staged on this site, which left the permanent legacy of the RFH.

The lower of the two glassy beam-buildings (each structurally a very big steel truss, more akin to bridge construction than conventional architecture) beside Waterloo Bridge is to house a mix of uses including a National Literature Centre (a development of the centre’s existing Saison Poetry Library), a large education centre, and restaurants. These beams are potentially very interesting. There are very few places on the site where these two buildings can put down their feet, and the existing structures are not strong enough to support them. So there is some mighty structural engineering and some dramatic cantilevers involved, courtesy of Arup. To what extent this structure is expressed in the final design will be key to its success. Should it be sleek or rough? How much of a high-tech foil should it be to the defiantly strange existing mix of in-situ and precast concrete? I reckon it should look industrial rather than superslick. It doesn’t want to resemble an office block. The Kelly gang at the Southbank Centre is testing public reaction with these images. Some show the big orchestra room on top with more of a solid hat to it than others. They will have to move fast now: they have only a couple of months before the scheme is due to be submitted for detailed planning approval.

Apart from the obvious new bits, lots of less obvious new bits will be tucked into all the unused space beneath the raised walkways and terraces. There will be new informal performance spaces, a museum of the site itself (from before the Festival to the present day) , children’s centre, and of course a lot of shops and restaurants, particularly along the riverside.

It’s tempting to sneer at all the commerce, but hang on: this is what financed a lot of the earlier RFH project, beyond the Lottery money. The Southbank Centre effectively took out a mortgage to be paid off by the commercial revenue. This, according to chief executive Alan Bishop, has proved to be a good move, yielding more money than forecast. But there’ll still need to be the usual appeal to donors: the Arts Council’s contribution to the budget this time round is a mere £20m.

Kelly makes a good point here: where the other South Bank venues attract visitors in swarms, the QEH/Hayward bit is “not sticky” in the same way. People buy tickets to events, go there, and leave again. They don’t hang around. As presently laid out, it’s not a place you really want to hang around, though the half-deserted foyer of the QEH in daytime, with its mushroom-headed columns, has its austere attractions. I’m pleased to hear that the unique leather club-style seating of the 900-seater QEH and 365-seat Purcell Room is to remain and be refurbished.

But here’s a thing. In the course of its long and neglected lifetime, this prime chunk of Brutalism has swung from being Sixties-groovy to being thoroughly despised (“concrete bunkers” inevitably) and back again. It’s increasingly seen as exotic by a new generation. It is also championed by none other than the World Monuments Fund, which you’d tend to associate more with places such as Stonehenge. You can see why: concrete it may be (very good quality concrete, as it happens) but it is more sculptural than architectural. Its ‘ugliness’ has mattered less and less as the years have gone by and the sheer vigour of the composition has come back into focus. So despite his big new additions and extensive alterations, architect Peter Clegg of FCBS cherishes the original fabric and form of these buildings, keeps them and incorporates them. The Hayward will remain the Hayward, restored. Ditto the QEH and Purcell Room. But you will approach and experience them differently. They will be set in a different, greener, landscape.

One of the original Hayward Gallery architects, Dennis Crompton, has given his blessing to the scheme and to the array of activities now taking place in the area. Something he and his companions in the “Archigram” collective of the time always wanted to see was fun alongside high culture. Kelly cites another influence of the time, architect Cedric Price’s unbuilt ‘Fun Palace’ for impresario Joan Littlewood. Aspects of that filtered into Richard Rogers’ and Renzo Piano’s later Pompidou Centre in Paris. In turn Peter Clegg describes the Hayward/QEH as ‘a concrete Pompidou’ in the way it celebrates what are usually the hidden guts of the building. His scheme also respects the only recent masterplan for the 21-acre Southbank Centre site that stuck: the pragmatic phased menu of work sketched out by architect Rick Mather in 2000. He too thumbs-up the new design. So frankly, this is one big architectural love-in. The only losers – aside from ultra-conservationists who resist all change – are architects Haworth Tompkins, who designed a modest extension to the Hayward’s foyer along with artist Dan Graham, opened in 2003. That gets swept aside as the new architects get back to the original concrete and add their own glass.

Will it happen? I hope so, though it may have to be trimmed back if the fundraising does not come through as strongly as hoped. There are some refinements needed, and Clegg knows this: the detail is always what counts. The most optimistic plan is to close the venues in 2014, and have the revamped place up and running by 2017, 50 years after the Queen opened the concert hall named after her. Kelly takes a gung-ho approach: don’t be timid, go for it. I agree. You’d never bet against this saga going into yet another phase of indecision and delay, but – subject to that devilish detail – I like what I see and it looks logical, achievable, even desirable. Do it.

Links

Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios http://www.fcbstudios.com/
Southbank Centre Festival Wing microsite http://www.thefestivalwing.com/

Text © Hugh Pearman, images ©Southbank Centre/FCBS . Fuller version of the article first published in The Sunday Times on March 10, 2013.

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