Thursday 7 March 2013

South Bank redevelopment - transformation or follie de grandeur?

FCBS - designs for Festival Wing on the South Bank Centre
So, the plans have been revealed for the re-vamp of the South Bank's Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and Hayward Gallery - now re-branded as the Festival Wing. There is not denying that the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Purcell Room front of house are in need of a spruce up and I gather that facilities back stage are similarly tired. The bad news is that, if it all goes ahead, they will be closed for two years. Work starting 2014 for a grand re-opening in 2017. That's a long time to be denied two busy and useful concert halls.

FCBS - designs for Festival Wing on the South Bank Centre
Whether architects FCB will be able to do more than spruce up, and rationalise the usage of space will remain to be seen. The plans as published today have some very promising elements. The idea that the gap between the Hayward Gallery and the QEH/Purcell Room block be turned into a common foyer is simply brilliant. This will entail knocking a hole into the back of the Purcell Room, but seems to make the three buildings work properly. Also, a huge staircase will lead down to the ground level area between the Festival Wing and the RFH, this raising this in importance and making it a central area in the way the South Bank functions.

The plans also encompass the way pedestrians will move through the site to the BFI and the National Theatre, if this can be improved and made to seem logical and obvious, rather than struggling through a maze, then the architects will have done a brilliant job. Getting the Southbank Centre right isn't so much about buildings as the organisation of space, ensuring that the flow is right. One of the essentials, would seem to be the creating of useful, functioning public spaces which can act as focuses. Grand foyers are well enough, but the whole centre needs to have areas where people feel they want to meet. Putting a cafe onto a fly-blown terrace doesn't instantly make somewhere inviting.

Of equal importance will be the way that the ground floor spaces are handled, these have never been essential to the functioning of the art centre and have developed a life of their own, often an edgy one. We are promised that the skateboarders and graffiti artists will be found a home, but the main area under the QEH, currently home to skateboarders will be become a restaurant. As if the Southbank Centre needed one of those, there is a danger that the area becomes a restaurant mall with arts centre attached. There is going to be a history and archive room and various other things. I've so far seen glossy pictures (see above) but no detailed ground plans and the plans are not yet on-line at the SouthBank website. (But there is a great deal of information there).

A building will be built alongside Waterloo bridge and used as a creative and educational hub, i.e. providing much needed office space for creative groups and, I gather, a home for the poetry library.

One rather obvious thing I've not mentioned yet is the huge glass box which is going to be mounted on top of the new foyer space. Planned as a rehearsal and performance venue, which will be acoustically engineered (now where have we heard that one before), it could be a brilliant stroke or it could be a follie de grandeur. One detail has not been revealed yet, quite how the glass box will be clad and this will make a great deal of difference. From the drawings released so far it seems dominate in a rather worrying manner.

So its modified rapture at the moment, and a long way to go on the project before we can walk up that grand staircase and enter the new Festival Wing foyer.

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