London Calling: The Latest Twist in the Tale of London’s Concrete Island

  • 01 May 2013
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© Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

is engrossed in a vigorous debate over recently unveiled plans for the South Bank Centre, the cluster of Brutalist concrete buildings on the River Thames including the Queen Elizabeth Hall (QEH) and Hayward Gallery.

Today, the Centre has as its neighbour one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions – The London Eye – and this, with the addition of retail and other leisure-led developments in and around the South Bank, has refocused both commercial and cultural attention on the complex.

Last month, British architects Fielden Clegg Bradley Studios (FCBS) unveiled their vision for a “Festival Wing” on the site, focussing on the QEH and the Hayward Gallery. It isn’t the first time an architect has been asked to look at these buildings in recent decades. However, it is the most likely to come to fruition.

Read more about the Southbank Centre and its future development, after the break…

Richard Rogers’ plan for the Southbank Centre. Image © Flickr User CC dalbera

The QEH and Hayward Gallery have been under question from the 1980s when, first off, Terry Farrell planned to immerse them in a kind of polychromatic Post-Modern Pop palace. Subsequently Richard Rogers envisioned a glass wave as tall as the Royal Festival Hall rolling over the Hayward and QEH intended to offer visitors the kind of environment they would normally expect in Provence or Catalonia, but not in cool, damp London.

Neither scheme came to fruition. The QEH and Hayward Gallery, meanwhile, remain as relics of a future past, in some ways abandoned, yet still popular in terms of visitors numbers, although often castigated and even derided for their uncompromising design. They are a vivid reminder of the kind of modern city  envisaged by Peter and Alison Smithson in their influential 1958 Berlin-Hauptstadt competition: this was for a city of strata, of nodes and connections, and a system of movement that would separate the car, the delivery van and the dustbin lorry from the pedestrian.

Hayward Gallery © Flickr User CC SkyDivedParcel

As built, the QEH and Hayward Gallery might be seen as the evolutionary link between the work of Louis Kahn and British High-Tech, although what most visitors experience is a concrete island of blind and introverted structures with weathered concrete hides as thick and grey as an elderly elephant: a mound of concrete decks and heavy concrete viaducts. Beneath them, there is a stygian underworld bathed in lurid fluorescent light populated by bins, puddles and service vehicles.

Visitors to the Festival of Britain in front of the Dome of Discovery. (Southbank Centre Archive/Mrs Holland). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons User Opringle

Both buildings share the remains of the 1951 Festival of Britain site with the elegant, stone and glass faced Royal Festival Hall (RFH). Both buildings were the work of the Special Works Division of the London County Council Architect’s Department. Inside that department and working on the QEH were Ron Herron, Warren Chalk and Dennis Crompton, who, together, formed one half of Archigram. As Reyner Banham pointed out in The Architecture of the Well Tempered Environment, QEH is a curious mix of the then Corbusian orthodoxy for concrete and the more immediate concerns of Archigram for the latest technologies, adaptability in use and Pop design.

Five decades on from the completion of the Hayward and QEH, it is clear from the current exhibition of FCB’s proposals at the RFH that these buildings are back in fashion. Adrian Forty, an architectural historian at the Bartlett, talks about the Archigram movement and the original design team’s aspiration of a cultural complex that would play host to unexpected events. Because these never really happened, the buildings and the South Bank Centre as a whole lack a certain humanity. Forty’s remarks, however, seem misleading because the Piranesian undercrofts beneath the QEH foyer were used for many years by skateboarders, while – remarkably – some of the roof terraces are now being used as allotments.

Outdoor events at The Overture, a free three-day festival to mark the reopening of Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, attended by over a quarter of a million people. (Sheila Burnett). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons User Opringle

Peter Clegg of FCB enthuses over the concrete aesthetic of the Sixties buildings, although he is troubled by the dysfunctional underworld they harbour, and by the fact that the complex is hard to navigate. The consensus is that these buildings are remote, yet once inside them, they are rewarding: the interiors are generally more highly valued than the exteriors.

FCB propose a big extension to solve what they see as the shortcomings of the buildings. We are being set up for a very big move indeed. In fact, I haven’t seen a more out-of-scale extension since Michael Graves mated Breuer’s Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1985 with his own Post-Modern giant. As Hilton Kramer said at the time, “With this announcement, the crowded record of foolish decisions [by the Whitney] could no longer be regarded as a succession of miscellaneous delinquencies.”

MICHAEL GRAVES, PROPOSED ADDITION TO MARCEL BREUER’S WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART, SCHEME 1, NEW YORK, NEW YORK, 1985-1989. Courtesy of Archive of Affinities

I should explain. Graves pictured a supersized Whitney four times the size of Breuer’s. He doubled the plot width and doubled the height preserving the original building, yet left it cowering in the corner of Madison Avenue and E 75th St.

On the South Bank, architects FCB have been asked to create a new central foyer for the Hayward and QEH, which they have done by enclosing the canyon between these buildings; this is only a part of the big extension. To the rear of the new foyer, in another strip of space between the QEH and Waterloo Bridge, they have proposed a glazed bar of shops and restaurants. This forms a contrasting and successful backdrop to the silhouette of the Purcell Room and the QEH, and their shared plant room, and the adjacent Hayward with its prickly roof of pyramidal skylights.  Into these spaces, and the existing undercrofts, the scheme provides renewed back stage facilities, a new archive, a “youth space”, venues for cabaret and music and a new national literature centre. A key strength of the scheme is that all of these spaces are approached via a grand external stair that converts the Berlin-Hauptstadtesque strata into a piano nobile via the first floor entrance foyer.

© Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

But it is on the top of the complex that FCB have executed a similar move to Graves, and one, perhaps, worthy of Lewis Carroll. Resting on the new foyer, and high above the rest of the QEH and the Hayward, a huge glass box – a new performance and rehearsal hall – looms over the ensemble. It is as if the Hayward’s Gallery 5, which is a fairly clearly defined oblong element in the original composition, has been invited, like Alice, to ‘EAT ME’ and, in the process, has telescoped in size, while changing its skin from concrete to glass and coming to rest high above it all. Initially, this problem of scale is not evident in the designs on show at the RFH because there is a lack of detail. There is nothing to measure until the eye is drawn back to either the Hayward or the QEH and to their aggregate forms and their comparative amount of variety and detail.

© Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

And sadly, the FCB addition, despite is sheer size, lacks the quiet monumentality of its immediate neighbours.

This gargantuan space, as the exhibition suggests, will offer great views over London. But this is not a crow’s nest at the top of a galleon’s mast. Nor is it architect David Kohn and artist Fiona Banner’s A Room for London commissioned by Alain de Botton’s Living Architecture perched on the roof of the QEH. Marooned by retreating floodwater,  this ark evokes the memory of Joseph Conrad’s novel ‘Heart of Darkness’ and the boat the ‘Roi des Belges’. Kohn and Banner’s Room for London is diminutive atop this Sixties icon; in comparison, FCB’s equally nautical glass intervention is a supertanker.

Richard Rogers’ models for the Southbank Centre. Image © Flickr CC User Iqbal Aalam

I am fond of the Hayward and QEH, and I am most grateful that neither Farrell or Rogers’ schemes were built; I am equally delighted that the consensus now is that, however flawed these buildings might be, they offer a unique record of an approach to buildings and cities at a point where the disciplines of planning and architecture very nearly merged. If they had, we might all be living, for better or worse, in stretches of city something very much like the South Bank Centre. What is more, there is an increasing acknowledgement that these buildings are worth salvaging, although, of course, this might be because doing so may well be the cheapest option.

It is perhaps dangerous to speculate over what else might be done here. However, a conversation in our own studio revolved around what we consider to be one of the more fascinating parts of the original ensemble – the canyon that separates these buildings and the space under and around the Purcell Room and the plant room above (on the north side) and the Hayward entrance and terrace (on the south side). What sprang to mind was the famous glimpse one gets through the Siq canyon of the Khasneh, or Treasury temple, in Petra; because what seems to be missing in the latest South Bank proposals is an appreciation and understanding of the unique sculptural qualities of the spaces between the buildings.

View on Al Khazneh from al-Siq, Petra, Jordan. Image via Wikimedia Commons User Bernard Gagnon
© Flicr User CC megapiksel

Or are we perhaps afraid of such subtle experience, of one that relies on a pure architectural sensation of being immersed within the stillness and enduring presence of these concrete structures?  Would this be sufficient visual and experiential distraction and entertainment for the contemporary mind?  There is an interesting discussion to be had when looking at the future of developments like the South Bank: one comparing the virtues of revealing places bit-by-bit as opposed to thrusting these highly visible iconic gestures at us in a mindless rush towards instant impact .

Simon Henley is a teacher, author of the well-received book The Architecture of Parking, and co-founder of London-based studio Henley Halebrown Rorrison (HHbR). His column London Calling will look at London’s every-day reality, its architectural culture, and its role as a global architectural hub; above all, it will explore how London is influencing design everywhere, whilst being forever challenged from within. 

Hayward Gallery © Flickr User CC SkyDivedParcel

The ideas and opinions expressed in London Calling are Simon Henley’s alone and do not reflect the views of ArchDaily, it’s editors, or affiliates.

Cite: Simon Henley. "London Calling: The Latest Twist in the Tale of London’s Concrete Island" 01 May 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 20 Dec 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=365576>