Festival of change
Nicholas Snowman believes the South Bank Centre will become London's central arts quarter 0 ne day, in the middle of April this year, lashed by driving rain and ferocious winds, a small group of bedraggled figures could be seen battling their way across the windswept walkways of the South Bank Centre. These were representatives of the ten short-listed architects, selected from 121 international architectural practices to create a new vision for the Centre. Their mission: to transform the 'concrete bunker' into a vibrant part of the city, to integrate it not only with the north bank of the river but also with the exciting developments south of the Thames.
The site is already an historic one, with its views to St Paul's Cathedral and the Houses of Parliament, but the opening of the new Waterloo International Terminal gives it a new significance. This will be the arrival point in Britain for some 15 million visitors a year from Europe through the Channel Tunnel. The South Bank Centre, especially the Royal Festival Hall, a priori- ty in the affections of Londoners, will be the new focus of the capital.
The centre is rapidly becoming one of the principal agents for change in the whole area. We believe that building a partnership between arts organisations and businesses on the south bank is the key to the transformation of our buildings into an arts quarter rather than isolated recepta- cles for works to be viewed or heard. Fur- thermore, the renaissance of the South Bank site could bring a powerful 'multiplier effect' in terms of economic growth and social development. The impact on this gloomy and badly planned area of London would be considerable.
The south bank of the river represents one of the last great development opportu- nities in the capital. London is a city which, after the War, missed its chance of rebirth as a coherent whole. Contrast it with cities like Barcelona or Paris where municipal planning and private enterprise have worked together to enhance the best of what was achieved in the past and to encourage grands projets for the future.
Now, however, there is a rapidly increas- ing understanding on the part of politi- cians, local councils and the public that the new developments south of the river, gen- erated by the Waterloo Terminal cannot simply be left to happen in a haphazard fashion. The centre could not be better placed to play a major part in the partner- ship working for urban regeneration for the whole area.
Arts buildings symbolise, in a way noth- ing else can, the relationship between the arts and the public. The industrialists, acceding in the last century to the level of the new bourgeoisie, housed magnificent municipal collections in temples to the arts such as the Manchester City Art Gallery. Similarly the North American dream of an arts centre in our own time represents the philosophy of public benefaction, the spiri- tual tax paid by business to the community. Both the Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center reflect the same architectural brief as Baltimore's Museum of Fine Art, built in 1929. These buildings, in their pseudo- Grecian or Renaissance splendour, are there to impress. They are monuments of which, like Gamier's Paris Opera, the peo- ple may be proud but into which they feel no particular urge to enter.
It was President Georges Pompidou who, in the late 1960s, had the imagination, as well as the political will, to put 'access' firmly on the agenda, even before that word had become fashionable. He appreci- ated the treasures of the Museum of Mod- em Art in Paris while regretting that they were hidden from easy public view in the mausoleum-like Palais de Tokyo. He also realised that a large public library and information centre was needed by Parisians who might otherwise be deterred from entering places of learning.
So the Pompidou Centre came to be built. Instead of imposing walls dividing the public from the art objects within, here transparency emerged from glass and steel. Whereas in the traditional cultural centre, public squares were bordered by temples and monuments, the Pompidou offered a welcoming piazza, tempting passers-by as well as dedicated audiences to cultural feasts, as in Sienna's ancient city square.
It is fashionable in some quarters to deride the Pompidou Centre. Certainly, this building, conceived and built before the first oil crisis, speaks of an epoch of plenty. Nor have budget reductions and neglect of maintenance helped the Centre in recent years. However, what we must retain from the Pompidou experience is the project's playfulness and sheer magnetism. Here, access is triumphant with some 26,000 people coming each day to this arts centre not in spite of the building, but because of it.
In 1992, the Phaidon Press published John McKean's study of the Royal Festival Hall. To be inspired by the South Bank Centre's new and exhilarating challenge, we need look no further than our own prin- cipal building. Opened in May 1951 for the Festival of Britain, this building is as far from a forbidding temple to the arts as the Pompidou Centre. Here the welfare state, inspired by the post-war spirit of optimism, was able to envisage the cultural centre for the new democratic era. Transparency is the keynote to Sir Leslie Martin's generative concept which is as brilliant as it is simple to grasp. The whole building is conceived as an 'egg in a box', with the auditorium suspended between spacious foyers within the 'box' that rises elegantly from the Thames.
The inspired opening out of the ballroom and foyer spaces for exhibitions and other events in April 1983 was in tune with the original inspiration behind the building of the Hall. But over the years the 'readabili- ty' of the building has become blurred by haphazard decisions over entrances, car access and the siting of shops, bars and restaurant spaces. So, two years ago, we set about seeing how the Hall's original clarity and grace could be restored without com- promising the principle of the GLC's 'open foyer' policy.
The Festival of Britain bequeathed to us two traditions. One is symbolised by the post-Corbusian elegance and functionality of Leslie Martin's Royal Festival Hall, the other is that of the Festival itself with the welcome informality of its temporary con- structions, domes, tents and towers.
John McKean pointed out that 'modem Britain's first modern building has never been complete.' The South Bank now requires new directing and unifying to com- plete the vision begun in 1951. It was this which led us to launch an international architecture competition in February this year to find a master planner capable of transforming an arid exterior environment and its heterogeneous buildings into a clearly defined and perceptible whole.
Since 1986, the South Bank Centre has increased the one million visitors a year it inherited from the GLC to the two and a half million who now fill the Royal Festival Hall's foyer each year, not to mention the million patrons for ticketed events. They, and the many people who are deterred from coming, deserve to experience the arts in more welcoming surroundings. pp It is too easy for the arts' world to blame the politicians for the arts not featuring high on their agenda. J. K. Galbraith wrote: `We attribute to politicians what should be attributed to the community they serve.' The South Bank Centre is uniquely placed to serve the public. Doing nothing is the one option we do not have.
Nicholas Snowman is chief executive of the South Bank Centre