Monday, 10 February 2014

Joined up planning or simple point-scoring?

The South Bank Centre's expansion was always going to be controversial, after all we've had plenty of other attempts to do something with the centre. Fundamentally the trio of buildings is rather intractable, with the Purcell Room, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Hayward Gallery positioned on the assumption that all pedestrians were going to be at podium level. As soon as the podiums started to come down, then things made less sense. There has always been the feeling of wasted space. 

Frankly, I did rather find the new proposals rather ugly with the big glass box and the long structure sticking out towards the Thames, effectively bisecting the site. I have always had a lot of sympathy with Nicholas Hytner's objections to the plan. But fundamentally there is nothing that can't be fixed, and most large scale projects like this go through endless variations. Just think of the long-running Covent Garden saga and the way the architects there kept their heads, re-drafted things and came up eventually with a plan which was reasonably satisfying.

The big problem with the South Bank isn't the architecture, it is that it has become a political football. It seems alarmingly point-scoring for a public sector project as big as this to get as far as it has done before the Mayor of London announces that he does not support the whole basis for the project - moving the skateboard-park so the centre can use the ground floor for commercial properties whose rents will help fund its expanded form.

This isn't about the rights and wrongs of skateboarders and the historic nature of the skateboard park. This is about proper project planning, joined up thinking and decent long term planning. Surely someone at the Mayor's office could have forseen the problems and mentioned them earlier. The way the Mayor of London has suddenly announced his objection to the skateboard park moving smacks a little too much of point-scoring and jumping onto band-wagons.

The idea of having a Mayor of London is to make such London-wide planning easier and more feasible. At this rate, the South Bank Centre will have to go back to the drawing board again. And London will have a crummy South Bank for another 10 years, again. If the South Bank redevelopment stalls then for many Londoners Boris Johnson won't be the man who saved the skateboard park, but the man who torpedoed a very necessary development to one of London's most important arts centres.

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