The scaffolding is finally gone the two-year refurbishment of London’s iconic Southbank Centre is now complete and this week the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room reopened their doors, so just before final term kicks off on a group of us took advantage of the good weather and went to have a look.
Opened in the late sixties following on from the Festival of Britain, The Purcell Room, Queen Elizabeth Hall and the iconic Hayward Gallery joined the Royal Festival Hall to bring music, art, film and theatre provision together. Despite an amazing site with views across the Thames to the Houses of Parliament, then the site was neglected and unloved. The 1951 Festival of Britain had ‘temporarily’ brought about a transformation, only to be abandoned when most of the structures were demolished leaving only the Festival Hall itself standing in what was little more than an urban wasteland.
This all changed when a new complex of buildings was designed by a group of radical young architects led by Norman Engleback, working for the then London County Council, which at the time boasted the world’s largest architectural office. They were given extraordinary freedom to innovate and approached the project from the inside out meaning the exterior was a secondary to the requirements of the galleries and concert halls.
The Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and Hayward Gallery, are often described as rebellious and inward-looking but they are beautifully conceived offering incredible performance spaces, with great attention given to how the public move through the buildings.
As with many Brutalist buildings the use of concrete can be alienating and ugly to some, but the board-marked concrete of Southbank Centre’s is hand-made, making the cool grey appear more oppulent and tactile. Made from concrete poured into moulds of Baltic pine, the rough grain of the building has been described as a wooden building, but cast in concrete.
The Southbank Centre has some extraordinary attention to detail with precast panels made from crushed Cornish granite, cast anodized doors and window frames, aluminium seats made using techniques borrowed from the aircraft industry, marble floors, and polished gleaming brass handrails. The rough haptic elements of these materials have now been brought back to life once again by architects Feilden Clegg and Bradley’s renovation: one can see how they have worked with, rather than against the (concrete) grain of the original sixties design. Well worth a visit.