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London Redevelops South Bank Waterfront

Aerial view rendering of the new Festival Wing at Southbank Centre, featuring two new glass additions and a series of rooftop gardens
The new Festival Wing at Southbank Centre will feature two new glass additions and a series of rooftop gardens. The new spaces will help improve circulation and provide amazing views of the city. © Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

 Architects and engineers are planning a complex refurbishment to a decades-old, multibuilding arts center that will improve access and create a permanent festival atmosphere along the banks of the Thames River.

April 9, 2013—In 1951, Britain—still reeling from the after effects of World War II—staged the Festival of Britain to celebrate the nation and focus an optimistic eye toward the future. The celebration’s focal point was a new concert hall, the Royal Festival Hall, located on the south bank of the Thames, next to Waterloo Bridge. According to architect Ian Taylor, a studio leader in the London office of the architecture firm Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (FCB), the festival was “based around ordinary people’s lives. And a strong feeling that design was part of the new vision.”

Taylor is a member of a team planning an ambitious expansion and renovation of Southbank Centre, the complex of arts spaces that has grown up around the Royal Festival Hall and that has emerged as a hub of London’s cultural life. He says, “That spirit of looking to the future is something the current director of the South Bank is trying to pursue.”

FCB is leading the effort to remake the center with a soaring group of glass additions. In addition to the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre comprises two other buildings that date to the 1960s: the Queen Elizabeth Hall, opened in 1967, and the Hayward Gallery, in 1968. The former features the Purcell Room, a space for intimate chamber music, solo recitals, and spoken-word events, while the latter is geared toward displays of artwork.

Together, the complex hosts dance, art, and performances, and supports 4 resident orchestras, 14 resident artists, and more than 100 other arts groups. The 21-acre site sees 25 million visitors a year; it also sits across the street from the venerable National Theatre. 

Rendering of the riverfront of the Thames near Southbank Centre

Plans for the Festival Wing build on a prior renovation of the Royal
Festival Hall that has turned the riverfront of the Thames near
Southbank Centre into a pedestrian-friendly area.
© Feilden Clegg
Bradley Studios

While the Royal Festival Hall was refurbished in 2005, the other structures are badly in need of modernization. The Hayward, for instance, doesn’t have ample room to securely load and unload art. And the Queen Elizabeth Hall in particular suffers from poor lighting and cramped back-of-house facilities. “We’d like to keep the character, take out some of the ugly lighting booms and bits of technology that have been added over time, and improve those,” Taylor says. “And in the Queen Elizabeth Hall in particular, [we want to] improve access onto the stage.” The plan also calls for providing adequate backstage space to the left and right of the stage, as well as improving the dressing rooms. “They’re very poor for an international arts center,” Taylor says.

On the outside, it’s a more complicated picture. The sixties-era buildings at Southbank, referred to as the Festival Wing, were built in the style of brutalism, which utilized raw concrete to create strong, fortresslike buildings. As with most brutalist works of architecture, the Festival Wing buildings are both loved for their bold expression of function and hated for their stark gray facades.

Wrestling with the complex’s brutalist heritage, both functionally and aesthetically, is at the heart of the project. “They do divide opinions,” says Patricia O’Connor, the spokesperson for the Southbank Centre. “Some people love them and some people are not keen on brutalist architecture. With this development we want people to realize what amazing buildings they are.”

Taylor says that when his firm first responded to the owner’s brief, “We took the view that certainly the facilities inside the buildings are well loved. The Hayward Gallery as an art gallery works well for the installation of contemporary art. The QEH and the Purcell Room in themselves, as performance rooms, are pretty good acoustically and liked by the performers.”  

The international consulting firm Arup, which is handling the structural engineering on the new project, also engineered the original buildings. In fact, Robert Emerson, Esq., the former chairman of the company, was the project engineer in the 1960s. Taylor notes that Emerson “personally went down every pile on the end of the rope, six months before [doing so] was banned as dangerous. It was quite an interesting story there. It was a well-built building.”

Taylor says that the buildings are just what they appear to be. “The ductworks are concrete shafts. They’re invisible. You could say it’s a fantastic example of that period of the integration of architecture [with] structural and mechanical engineering.”

Rendering of the renovation the London's Southbank Centre, which displays a dramatic flight of steps

As part of the renovation of London’s Southbank Centre, a dramatic
flight of steps will replace an old loading dock, connecting the Royal
Elizabeth Hall with the Festival Wing’s new Central Foyer and Glass
© Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Still, many of the faults of the existing complex come down to access and orientation. In other words, it’s hard to find the front doors. Originally, the buildings were designed with upper-level terraces—meant to connect people straight off of the Waterloo Bridge—while the ground level was reserved for cars and deliveries. But over time, the thinking shifted to a conviction that public access should be at ground level. Terraces around the festival hall were removed, and the Queen’s Walk, at the edge of the river, has become a pedestrian-friendly place.

FCB is trying to take that concern for walkability and apply it to the terraces throughout the rest of the complex. “Our approach was to mend the circulation, improve ways for the public to circulate from ground to terrace and from terrace to bridge,” Taylor says. “That immediately allows better legibility, safer spaces, and clearer access to the entrances.”

At the same time, the undercroft of those buildings was little used, serving as a parking and loading area “full of vans and rubbish and lorries and things,” O’Connor says. The space had also been taken over by skateboarders and graffiti artists. Under the current plan, the street artists will be given another space along the river, and the spaces will be opened for up restaurants and cafes.

Designers plan to move the loading bay to a new spot that’s hidden from view, and add a wide set of stairs leading up a new amphitheater and generous outdoor festival steps. “It’s very clear that’s the main circulation route,” Taylor says.

Above, the new Southbank proposal calls for extensive rooftop gardens, some of which are designed to host educational and arts events, or even cocktail parties. “There aren’t many places where you can walk all over a public building like that with views out to the city,” Taylor says. “It’ll be spectacular.”

The development will also include two new additions. The first, adjacent to the Waterloo Bridge, is a long glass building, dubbed the Liner Building, which will feature a full floor of educational and public participation spaces along with restaurants. The other is a large glass foyer with performance spaces above it dubbed the Glass Pavilion. “That pavilion will be the most amazing room,” Taylor says, “with views out over the river, right from St. Paul’s through to the Houses of Parliament, past Westminster. It’s an amazing new room for the city.” Both buildings will use glass extensively to provide a deliberate contrast with the underlying presence of concrete.

One of the chief challenges, Taylor says, will be making openings into the existing concrete structures to support the new program and link the new buildings to the old. “The exact way we’re doing that has to be treated with care,” he says. Arup declined to comment on the project for this story, noting that engineering on the new wing was still in the early schematic design phase.

While the Royal Festival Hall was named to the National Heritage List for England for its “special architectural or historical interest,” neither the Queen Elizabeth Hall nor the Hayward Gallery was. That decision may make development of the site a bit easier. As Taylor notes, “Once a building is listed as being of special architectural or historical interest, there are a set of different planning rules that come into force and in a way make it more difficult to change the structure of the building.” Even sensible changes have to go through “quite a laborious process,” he says.

The Festival Wing project is expected to cost about £120 million (U.S.$183 million), roughly equaling the cost to refurbish the Royal Festival Hall. O’Connor says that the funding is likely to come from private foundations. “All that work is happening now,” O’Connor says. “We have very high hopes for support.”

All of the changes are meant to make Southbank Centre not just a place for shows, but a place where residents and visitors can really spend some time—a kind of permanent urban festival. “That’s one of its failings [now],” Taylor says. “It’s been very good for the shows. But that’s it. People turn up. They try to find their way in. Once they find the way in, they go in. They come out and what do they do?” They leave, he says.

The goal of the Royal Festival Hall renovation is to create a welcoming environment inside and out. “It’s really meant that people go down to hang out,” he says. “And then they bump into art.”


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