The Royal Festival Hall, London: historic modernism reinvented.

THE RFH TODAY

If you’re British, the Royal Festival Hall is a part of your life. Everybody knows of it. If you live in or visit the capital, chances are you’ve arranged to meet friends there, in the odd and seemingly permanently-changing assortment of cafes and restaurants and bars that has inhabited it down the years. So did your parents and grandparents. You might even have made it into the period-piece auditorium for any one of an astonishing variety of performances ranging from symphony orchestras and dance groups to the world premiere of Brian Wilson’s psychedelic masterpiece Smile. And who can forget the sight of deputy prime minister John Prescott not-quite-dancing to Things Can Only Get Better by D:ream at Tony Blair and his sidekick Peter Mandelson’s 1997 election victory night party?

The choice of venue – originally enabled, remember, by Mandelson’s grandfather, the then Home Secretary Herbert Morrison – spoke volumes. This had been the cultural manifestation of the landslide post-war Atlee government. A palace for the people. It is timely – now that Tony Blair has finally handed in his notice after ten years in power – to consider what has happened to the place.

It’s back, after a cool £111m upgrade involving substantial new building and landscaping as well as the re-fettling of the old hall. It will finally re-open later this month, but test concerts of all types have been going on for some time now. After spending all that money, the worry was that the acoustics would still not be up to the job. After all, in 1951 when King George VI first opened it in time for the Festival of Britain, people were still listening to scratchy 78 rpm records at home, or via the atmospheric interference of valve-operated wirelesses. Aural expectations were lower. In 2007, we expect digital clarity, in live music no less than our personal music players.

This is a tall order for any auditorium, let alone one that is Grade 1 listed with preservationists watching your every move. Acoustician Larry Kirkegaard, who over the years has made even the Barbican hall sound halfway reasonable, has however been able to do some fundamental stuff with the reverberation time of the RFH, and has crucially made it possible for performers to hear themselves play at last. This has been somewhat controversial because it has involved removing the somewhat Aalto-esque original sycamore-ply orchestra canopy in favour of an adjustable reflector that (we hope) actually does the job it is meant to do. There have been changes, too, to the rear and angled walls of the auditorium, plus certain materials. The main ceiling may look the same as ever, but in fact is now massively dense plasterwork rather than the original which was as thin and sound-transparent as papier-mache.

All manner of consultants and construction and trade professionals have been involved in the rejuvenation of the RFH. Services engineers Max Fordham and structural engineers Price and Myers have been as crucial to the project as Kirkegaard and of course architects Allies and Morrison, who have been in charge of the building since 1994. Everybody from carpet-weavers in Wilton to organ-builders in Durham have had a hand. No less than the original project in 1951, this is a scheme they can be proud to have been associated with.

The last time the architects and builders moved in on the RFH in a big way, it was 1962 and the mission was to internationalise the external appearance of the place. Luckily, they didn’t muck up the interiors too badly, though down the years they became steadily more cluttered. This time round, the architects were dealing not with what had come to be seen as an unfashionable leftover of the 1951 Festival of Britain, but a Grade 1 listed building.

I have to admit that I had my doubts, particularly over what was going on in the auditorium. Would the acoustic tinkerings wreck what was – despite its shabby state – still one of the most characterful auditoria in the world? There had after all been protests, led by the ever-vigilant Twentieth Century Society. They particularly objected to the removal of the orchestra canopy. “The architectural consequences of this are disastrous,” warned the Society in 2004. “We vehemently object to this act of architectural vandalism to Britain’s greatest post-war building. We believe that if the RFH scheme is carried out, it will not be long before there are calls to reinstate what has been lost.”

The society had other objections, too: such as the infilling of the sunken central bar, which is set at the heart of the building beneath the raised auditorium and had fulfilled its role since 1951 – only to finally fall foul of the disabled-access inspectors. The bar area is still there, but now raised to the surrounding floor level. I have to confess that I feel the loss of that more than the orchestra canopy, which has been replaced with a set of fabric-covered adjustable reflectors. There was something of the cave or hearth about that bar, something that anchored the whole circulation vortex of the building.

Inside the main hall, there is no doubt that the new pale fabric reflectors – designed to harmonise with the bands of the ceiling plasterwork rather than act as a foil to it – are visually anodyne. Let’s hope they work the way they are meant to. If they do, then fine. If not, then the calls to reinstate the lost 1951 canopy will re-intensify. But the overall feel of the restored auditorium – now with the number of seats slightly reduced in order to give better knee-room all round – is pretty good. After all, critics of the interior back in 1951 sometimes found the whole place too frantic, as you will read below. You could argue a case for a calmer ceiling treatment over the orchestra.

On the whole I’ve been encouraged by my various visits to the RFH in the run-up to re-opening. It is still the Royal Festival Hall, unsanitized. Its internal public areas have been cleared out to much of their original clarity – something greatly helped by the building of the new admin and retail building screening the railway tracks on the western side, plus the insertion of new retail under the broad raised walkway on the river front. I have my reservations about the pastiche Festival of Britain feel imparted to this frontage, but it’s not overdone. The main entrance – which in the 1962 remodelling was moved from the downstream side to the river frontage, where it was always unsatisfactory due to the level changes at that point – has moved back to its rightful place, although you can still find your way in through the other sides including once again the back, just as you could in 1951. Again as in 1951, there is now once more a proper public square at the back, this time landscaped by Gross:Max. And inside, structural engineers Price and Myers have skilfully inserted a glass lift shaft to link the levels at the key circulation point of the building.

It is all terribly British, isn’t it? As with the Royal Opera House, the Royal Court theatre, the Royal Albert Hall and probably everything else with “royal” in its title, we spend the kind of money normally associated with a new cultural building on urban-scale invisible mending. Never mind that the RFH – described in the Architectural Review of 1951 as “probably the best example in existence of the practical application of up-to-date acoustical science” – with reams of detailed analysis of its acoustic design published in all the journals including this one – turned out to be acoustically deficient. It seems that it’s the associations we treasure. Don’t knock it down and rebuild it – call in the menders.

This is probably correct, given that it is its role as a public meeting place which most endears it to us. The permeability of the building has always been its strongest suit and that, under the stewardship of Allies and Morrison, has been retained and enhanced. So used have we become to public concourses being choked with retail that you find yourself wondering what everyone is going to do with all that space, on so many levels right up to the little long-lost roof terraces on top. No doubt artistic director Jude Kelly has plans for all of it. The important thing is that the building is once again the domain of the cultured flaneur. Long may it remain so.

THE RFH IN FLASHBACK

“The new London County Council Concert Hall is Britain’s first post-war non-austerity and non-essential building,” said the RIBAJ of August 1949. “Inspection of the drawings and a visit to the already busy site – easily overlooked from Hungerford Bridge – reveals a monumental building in course of erection, a fact that is stimulating to an austerity-ridden architectural profession. Here is the first effort at that large-scale, fine public building for which British architects have been longing since the end of the war.”

As was the custom then, the writer was anonymous – probably the Journal’s then editor, one Eric Leslie Bird, MC. It is rather harder to untangle the skein of credits for the building. Authorship in the headline is given firmly to the LCC’s chief architect, Robert H. Matthew. But that was the protocol of the day, since the buck stopped with him. Further into the text we find the other names who are usually regarded as joint authors of this great building: Leslie Martin as deputy architect, Peter Moro as Associated Architect. Two other names, often overlooked, are in there too: senior architect Edwin Williams and principal assistant architect Stanley H. Smith. Then comes the tight-knit team of more than a dozen young project architects, many the product of the Regent Street Polytechnic where Moro had taught. Typical of the breed – and later the de facto publicist for the project – was 28-year-old Trevor Dannatt. Still active today, Dannatt had himself taught for a while at the Polytechnic before going to work for Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew. He tells his story elsewhere in this issue.

The Journal may have been a dry old institutional publication in those days, but it caught absolutely the sense of excitement surrounding what was the only important public building project in the whole of the UK, beset as the nation was by materials rationing and the urgent need to replace and overhaul the housing stock. Moreover, it was being built as a key component of the Festival of Britain site as masterplanned by Hugh Casson. The Festival’s South Bank site adopted a figure-of eight circulation pattern. The upstream focus was the all-aluminium Dome of Discovery by Ralph Tubbs, with vertical emphasis provided by Powell and Moya’s Skylon. On the downstream side, it was the Royal Festival Hall, with the equivalent vertical marker being the old Shot Tower nearby. All very symmetrical, but only for the year of the Festival itself, after which the incoming Tory Government made it its business to remove all of the South Bank traces of the Atlee Government’s festival. Though not the name. Nobody thought to change the name of the Royal Festival Hall, or dared to do so if they did. Though not fully complete at the time of the 1951 celebrations (its temporary rear façade anticipated a second auditorium which was never built), it was always intended to be permanent. It was the replacement for the much-loved Queen’s Hall, next to the BBC in Portland Place (very close, as it happens, both to the RIBA and the Regent Street Polytechnic) which had been the home of the Proms until it was destroyed by firebombs during the blitz.

Its South Bank replacement was to be more than London’s main concert hall: it was to be a place of public resort, a democratic arts palace where the cup of tea and the ballroom dance was as important as the orchestral recital. In that sense the key planning move of the building was a pragmatic response to a tight site. “Site restriction has brought about the placing of the large areas of circulation space, cloakrooms, restaurants etc, beneath the main auditorium”, reported our Mr. Bird. “The form of the building is, therefore, an enclosed auditorium box on tall ‘legs’ with foyers, restaurants, etc, arranged on ‘shelves’ supported on and cantilevered from the legs…except for enclosed corner blocks the whole of the interior beneath the main auditorium is open, practically all subdivision being by glazed screens only. Thus when the foyers are illuminated, it will be possible to look into the heart of the building from outside and to appreciate its structural anatomy.”

Remember that the writer was describing a scheme which was still very much in development. Despite the fact that the site was already a hive of activity, and the ‘final’ design had been approved in November 1948, actual design continued as it was built, making this an early example of a “fast-track” project. Looking at the 1949 model photographs now it is plain, for instance, that the river façade was still at a primitive stage and the flank elevations – though already highly modelled – had a way to go. You can see the box at the back where the second auditorium – never built – was to have been inserted. But the overall massing of the hall, complete with its gently curving boat-hull roof, is present and correct. All the key moves are there. Small wonder that academic Miles Glendinning has cogently argued that the broad concept of the hall as an “egg in a box” was clearly Robert Matthew’s, before Leslie Martin and his team of Young Turks, not to mention acoustician Hope Bagenal, got to work on it. In the end, Glendinning concludes, the design of the RFH may be considered as “collegiate”. It suited what writer Michael Frayn famously described as the “herbivore” tendency of the time, in this case translated into the idea of the democratic design team in the service of the people.

But for all that, there were powerful personalities at work. The team pulled in from the private sector to work with the London County Council was an elite, and knew it. They had direct access to Herbert Morrison as Secretary of State at the Home Office whenever they needed a helping hand. While Martin and Moro and the Young Turks worked up the design, Matthew was out and about pulling strings. Never mind the potential clash of personality between Matthew and Martin (at first Matthew resisted having a deputy, only to have Martin foisted upon him): the design team under Peter Moro always knew that when Martin hove into view, design changes were in the offing. Although Moro and Martin were very close (famously it was Martin who inserted the pink dot into Moro’s cellular carpet pattern, so syncopating what would otherwise have been an unduly repetitive design), it seems clear that Moro sometimes resented the interference.

But the upshot of all this, as we know, was one of the great public buildings. Le Corbusier, no less, was taken there while in England for a CIAM conference in (of all places) Hoddesdon, Herts. In a subsequent BBC radio broadcast later unearthed by the Twentieth Century Society, he was not above claiming an influence on its design. “My delight increased for all sorts of reasons: maybe a little personal vanity. We went to visit the large auditorium which, whilst in the foyer, appeared to me familiar; however, its interior revealed an English creation that was extremely beautiful and that surprised me most. Well, it is wonderful!”

Corb picked up on the fact that this was a building designed by youngsters at a time when (what’s changed?) major public commissions were usually handed out to greybeards. He also did his bit to prise apart the Special Relationship by declaring: “In America I battle with the superficial; here, things are done seriously.” Serious or not, of course the famously womanizing architect couldn’t help noticing “the charming ladies from the County Council” who ushered him around. All in all, listening to Corb being the wise architectural wizard is uncannily like listening to Frank Lloyd Wright in similar mode. The fact is that – while Corb was undoubtedly a hero to the generation of youngsters in the design engine room of the RFH – it was Scandinavian-modern, in particular the interior of Asplund’s 1936 courthouse at Gothenburg, which inspired it more. In that sense the RFH as originally built was the result of pre-war rather than post-war architectural thinking; indeed photos of long-obliterated glazing details reveal just how 1930s it looked in parts. Almost like Lubetkin’s Finsbury Health Centre of 1936 on steroids.

Nikolaus Pevsner – shown round the building by Dannatt – found much to praise but, as with Lubetkin’s increasingly decorative work of the period, he had his doubts over the surface treatment. Writing it up in the 1952 “London Except…” volume of the Buildings of England, the great architectural historian remarked: “The Royal Festival Hall is the first major public building in inner London designed in the contemporary style of architecture. It must be regarded as a milestone, even if the acceptance of the new style came twenty years later in London than in many major and minor capitals of Europe.”

So far, so good, and he loved the public foyers, stairs, galleries and restaurants unreservedly. But then came the sting in the tail: that decoration. The Lutheran Pevsner did not like it. “How can the bare functionalism of 1930 be overcome without a return to period ornament?” he pondered. Although he described Leslie Martin’s approach in the auditorium and on the exteriors as “a bold, courageous answer”, it was not an answer he wanted to hear. In the auditorium, “the variety of motifs is perhaps carried a little too far.” And outside, “the doubt remains whether monumentality in terms of the Twentieth Century can be achieved by building a massive block and then applying busy geometrical patterns to it.”

Such a judgement, along with the rapid fall from favour of the jaunty “Festival style” no doubt hastened the remodelling of the RFH under Sir Hubert Bennett in 1962-4, shortly before the Hayward Gallery and Queen Elizabeth Hall were added alongside. It was the Festival Hall’s misfortune to be seen to be in need of stylistic updating at a time when plenty of public money was available to expand the South Bank cultural centre. People seem strangely unaware today just how radically its exterior was changed. Colour, pattern and texture, a sophisticated if busy arrangement of solid and void, were exchanged for an international-style sheath of Portland stone with side and rear window treatments gathered into deeply incised slots rather than the varied perforations of the original. The river frontage was extended forwards and completely redesigned. Having said which, the revamp avoided the brutalism that the same design team adopted alongside, and in its own terms was highly successful. It even preserved some fragments of the 1951 exterior, though even these were modified: Dannatt reports, for instance, that a mosaic panel retained as a staircase wall on the upstream side was changed from rich red to dull grey, which says it all, really. “Less idiosyncratic and more neutral” was the terse verdict in the updated volume of Pevsner. The interior fared better though it lost a fair amount of daylight and some elements, such as Peter Moro’s spiral staircases, were ripped out. The auditorium, parts of which had been condemned by Pevsner as “restless” and “bizarre”, survived virtually unscathed until the present-day remodelling under Allies and Morrison in the name of acoustic improvement.

What would we have thought of the original Royal Festival Hall, had it survived more festively? For sure the pendulum of fashion would have rehabilitated its richly-modelled architecture. It would be no less a Grade 1 listed building, though a slightly smaller one with a cramped riverside restaurant. Its public spaces would have been seriously reduced by the insertion of the second auditorium as originally envisaged. The problem of the hall’s acoustics – which despite the best science of the day turned out to be an embarrassment – would have remained, as would all the access and servicing difficulties now addressed.

Whatever taste-makers thought of its original architecture, it would have needed considerable design attention by now on a purely practical level. The back of the hall, for instance, which looks well enough in 1951 with its temporary façade and Dannatt-designed tension-wire canopy, never satisfactorily resolved the absence of the smaller auditorium that was meant to go there. Yet the quality of its interiors were such that they have largely survived, and have now been largely re-revealed in the Allies and Morrison scheme. Purists may take exception to some of the tweaks in the auditorium. But what joy to find that designer Robin Day’s original seating – based on lightweight car-seat design of the time – has been recycled, re-covered and re-fettled for the new acoustic regime – with Day, now in his 90s, still involved with the Race furniture company. In a way, that process reflects what the whole hall has gone through. Adaptable, recyclable, and above all loveable.

THE REVAMPED RFH: HUGH PEARMAN’S SUNDAY TIMES REVIEW, 27.5.2007.

It is so gloriously, madly, English. You have £111 million to spend on a landmark cultural building? Excellent. Right in the centre of the booming capital, you say? Better still. Tell you what – let’s not build anything that anyone might be in danger of actually noticing. Instead, let’s take a shabby old existing concert hall and spend all that money taking it apart, polishing it (not too much!), and putting it back together again. Any changes must be so subtle as to be all but invisible. Agreed?

And that, reader, is what they have done with the Royal Festival Hall, the last of the big-bucks Lottery-funded cultural projects in London, which re-opens next month. Elsewhere in the UK, we occasionally manage to produce new theatres, concert halls, art galleries, museums. Not in London. There, new building is left to the tower cranes of the office-and-apartment-block developers. When it comes to cultural destinations (I’m not counting the Dome, or the private-sector London Eye), we make do and mend, expensively. The RFH takes this attitude to its logical conclusion. It is so extremely conservative, it is almost radical.

We have had plenty of practice at this. Think of the British Museum, the Royal Albert Hall, the Royal Opera House, the National Portrait Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Gallery, Tate Modern, and now the new Greenwich planetarium. All have spent large, sometimes huge, sums of money on building work. In the case of Tate Modern it was even an entirely new museum stuffed with great difficulty into an old building. All these projects share the same goal: preservation of as much old stuff as is humanly possible. It’s what Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, president of the Royal Academy and architect of the Eden Project in Cornwall, describes as “lean-to Britain”. So then comes the question: is that a good or a bad thing?

That’s like asking – do you like icons, or anti-icons? The much-loved RFH is no Sydney Opera House or Bilbao Guggenheim. It has its moments, but it isn’t obvious postcard material. Its interiors are the best part of it, and that dates back to the fact that the post-war Atlee Government gave its architects a rather small plot of land to build on 60 years ago, in 1947. They couldn’t spread the foyers out very far around the auditorium, so instead they jacked the enormous hall up in the air on columns, and let the foyers flow right through underneath. This was quite literally rising to a challenge. It was brilliance. I am lost in admiration for the Royal Festival Hall.

Partly this is admiration for the essential modesty of today’s architects on the RFH, Allies and Morrison. True, they have been dealing with what is a Grade 1 listed building. Then again, so did Norman Foster at the British Museum, and nobody could accuse his Great Court project there, with its astonishing computer-generated glass roof, of being shy and retiring. But the difference is this: while both buildings had become messes that needed a lot of sorting out, the RFH was a different category of mess.

Opened in time for the Festival of Britain in 1951, it always worked well as a public rendezvous, but less well as an orchestral auditorium. Foster had to indulge in radical surgery to create public space at the BM: at the RFH, in contrast, all the space was pretty much there – it had just got cluttered up, a bit lost, in the way that buildings do over time. Oh, and of course the sound in the auditorium was rubbish. That was a bit of a shame, really, given that its post-war designers went really big on the newly-minted science of acoustics. Some say they just got it wrong, some say it was the builders taking too many short-cuts in the rush to complete. Either way, the hall looked and felt great inside, in its fussy but evocative 1950s way, but the sound was flat and the performers couldn’t hear themselves play.

Admiration? Yes, for the original non-hero architects. In those days of post-war austerity Britain didn’t have a Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright equivalent, and Sir Edwin Lutyens – previously the big barking dog of British architecture – had recently died. Basil Spence, Jim Stirling, and Alison and Peter Smithson were limbering up but weren’t quite up to speed yet. So the Royal Festival Hall – the only new cultural building in the entire country in those straitened times – fell to a group of young, highly talented and entirely understated individuals, working in the public sector. Robert Matthew, Leslie Martin and Peter Moro – and a team of Young Turks they recruited just for the job – played a blinder.

A wartime command structure operated: they designed and built the Royal Festival Hall at military speed. Indeed, it was still being designed, level by level, as it was being built, a phenomenon that was not to resurface until the “fast-track” buildings of the 1980s. Recently I met one of the surviving architects of that team, the 87-year old Trevor Dannatt, and toured the revamped RFH with him. How did they work so fast, I wondered? No problem, he replied. If they needed anything sorting, they just picked up the phone and called Herbert Morrison, the deputy prime minister. He fixed it for them. He was in charge of the Festival of Britain and the RFH was to be the only permanent building on the Festival’s main South Bank site. It could not fail.

None of which would count for anything if the building was some kind of pared-down utility structure, but the opposite was true. The RFH was sumptuous, right down to its special carpet design, its door handles, its choice timbers and leathers, its organ frontage, its state-of-the-art seating by designer Robin Day. It used to be a lot richer on the outside originally, too – more busy 1950s colour and pattern – but that was mostly scraped off when the building was extended forwards and re-skinned in smooth Portland stone in the early 1960s. However, much of the original interior survived.

And today? All this invisible mending means that I won’t be remotely surprised if most people hardly notice any difference. In fact, the changes are big ones. A complete new building alongside the railway tracks on the upstream side of the hall takes all the offices and most of the shops that used to clog up the place: more shops and cafes have been moved out beneath what used to be a 1960s walkway at the front. As a consequence, all the clarity of the interior spaces with their floating staircases and galleries has been regained, all the way up to the top where – for the first time in many years – you can even find the original little roof terraces. There’s more milling-around space, more bar space, generally more room for the cultured flaneur.

In the auditorium, acoustician Larry Kirkegaard – who has previously tackled the equally deficient Barbican concert hall – has been doing big things with the sound of the place. The Hall was internally dismantled and rebuilt to be much more solid, less absorbent. The stage is enlarged slightly, angles of walls changed, and – controversially – the original wavy-timber canopy over the orchestra has been replaced with adjustable fabric sound reflectors. I’ve been into the place during acoustic testing and it still sounds a little muffled to me. Others speak of an almost-visible “bubble” of sound expanding towards you at high level. I’ve asked singers who have rehearsed there, who tell me they can indeed hear themselves. The sound, I’m told by officials, is meant to be still recognisably the RFH – it’s not pretending to be aurally somewhere else – but this time, it will carry.

Even if the unthinkable happens and the acoustics still turn out to be dodgy, the character of the gracious, determinedly non-iconic RFH has still been improved no end. Because what this place does best of all is be London’s principal living room. It absorbs people and activity in a way that few buildings, before or since, have been able to manage. And that was all down to a few talented post-war Brits who imagined a better future with extreme clarity and dedication: Matthew, Martin and Moro. They were good, but they never again did anything as extraordinarily good as this.

All text and Royal Festival Hall exterior photos © Hugh Pearman. New interior photos © Richard Bryant/Arcaid. Historic photos courtesy of the RIBA Photographs Collection. CGI section image by Hayes Davidson. Main two-part text published in the RIBA Journal, June 2007 “South Bank Show” special issue. Follow-on text published in The Sunday Times, May 27 2007.

Links

Lots more on the Royal Festival Hall Project – including a full-length interview with Trevor Dannatt, one of the Hall’s original architects – on the RIBA Journal website, http://www.ribajournal.com

And to get a flavour of the RIBA’s marvellous photographic archive, visit http://www.ribapix.com