Magazine article The Spectator

Genius of the South Bank

Magazine article The Spectator

Genius of the South Bank

Article excerpt

Too young to see the Festival of Britain, I can still remember the Shot Tower which stood next to the Royal Festival Hall until 1962. My brother and I were sometimes taken to the South Bank to run around in the gardens which were laid out after the Festival, before the construction of the Hayward Gallery and the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The miniature version of the Crystal Palace, run up at the base of the Shot Tower as a last-minute commemoration in 1951, was the last surviving structure, apart from the Festival Hall itself.

Those gardens formed what has now become one of the most disputed development sites in London. In March last year the scheme by Richard Rogers Partnership for a glazed covering to this part of the site was refused its Lottery grant and subsequently abandoned. A press release from Chris Smith early in December was the latest move in a game which has involved large sums of public money over the course of nearly 15 years, with hardly any benefit yet visible to the public. It was a curiously uninformative document, announcing that everything was going to get much better, involving `the creation of new buildings and removal of old, the clearing of concrete walkways and the development of new public open space'. No architects or other consultants were named, and no visual evidence provided.

There are a limited number of moves which can be made in this game, and the idea of demolishing the Hayward Gallery and Queen Elizabeth Hall has come up several times before. The arguments for and against are intrinsic, relating to their aesthetic and use value as buildings, and extrinsic, relating to the possibility of building alternative facilities within tight constraints of money and site. The case is not proven on either count. The successive managements which have run the South Bank have clearly got it in for these buildings, and have done little to promote interim improvements. Cleaning the concrete on the outside, a process which has recently cheered up the National Theatre, would seem worthwhile even now. A better scheme of nocturnal lighting would bring out their best architectural characteristics and make their surroundings seem safer. These structures, spoilt in their original conception by excess rather than deficiency of architectural ideas, have their practical shortcomings, but fall well short of disaster. Do people like them? The South Bank maintains they don't, and, given their neglected condition, it is not surprising, but unsystematic enquiries suggest a growing appreciation of their individuality and characterfulness.

It would therefore be wise for Elliott Bernerd, the new chairman of the South Bank Centre, to brief his advisers to keep an open mind on these buildings, since much expenditure would be avoided by accepting them as part of the family. As for the `concrete walkways', the problems seem to come from a knot of prejudices rather than from any serious failings. At present, they have their original cheap paving slabs where large puddles tend to form, so there is no pleasure at close range from the surface one walks on. A regeneration instead of a replacement could include some of the necessary lighting improvements, while providing visual interest (varieties of paving material, words, images) to occupy the eye and the mind of the art-seeker. The site includes three levels and the walkways manage these transitions well, but the spaces beneath them have not been imaginatively used and they certainly need lifts and escalators as well as stairs. …

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