This summer saw an exhibition called Invisible, about the value of things you can’t see, and about spaces left open for the imagination to inhabit. It shows how important it is to have some places where no one is filling your head with messages or sales pitches or commands to take part in some scripted and planned activity.
The message of Invisible, at the Hayward Gallery, appears to have been lost on the administration of the Southbank Centre, where the Hayward stands. For they are currently pushing forward a plan for redeveloping the Hayward and the neighbouring Queen Elizabeth Hall that will mean thrusting commercial space into almost every spare void in and around these buildings. They want to put restaurants on the roof and shopping in the undercroft and to the sides. They want to stuff the place, in the words of John Donne, before, behind, between, above, below.
They are currently running a “competitive interview process with a selection panel” to choose architects for the development. According to the brief issued to shortlisted practices, the plan is to insert more than 5,000 sq metres of food, drink and retail. That’s about one-and-a-half times the space currently available to the public for enjoying art and music, which is going to be only slightly increased. A glass atrium is suggested between the gallery and the concert hall. At the nearby Royal Festival Hall a familiar blend of chain restaurants has already been installed – Yo! Sushi, Eat, Giraffe, Strada, Wagamama – and there seems every reason to believe that this pattern will continue.
The plan seems to be, in other words, to make the Southbank Centre resemble Terminal 5 or Canary Wharf or any moderately upmarket shopping mall you can think of, where steel and glass frame a predictable retail offer. It will also further the transformation of the southern side of the Thames into a long strip of importuning and pitching that starts at the tawdry fringe of the old County Hall and continues past the London Eye. Here, anything left open for wandering or reflection is seen as a missed opportunity for exploitation.
Yet the Southbank Centre should not be like everywhere else. It should be a place apart, where you can breathe a different kind of air and see the city in a different way. Its raised walkways give you a new perspective on the river, and its rugged 1960s architecture, like a craggy rock formation, creates a different sense of time to central London’s frenetic streets. These concrete structures have been much criticised but even though they have been minimally cared-for over several decades they still have nobility and – something increasingly precious because it is getting rarer – the provision of space and surface that is open, free, unprogrammed, unconsumed by branding and marketing.
Its obduracy could be an obstacle to the mall-ification of the South Bank, but the Southbank Centre has taken care to obtain from the government immunity from listing for five years – that is, it will be impossible for the Hayward and Queen Elizabeth Hall to be listed as buildings of architectural or historical importance, which considerably weakens their protection against inappropriate changes. This decision is plain outrageous: whether you like these buildings or not, they are by any measure significant buildings of their time and deserving of listing. The centre says it is working on “a conservation management plan” for its buildings but it’s hard to see how their essential qualities will withstand smothering in retail.
Nor can we be confident that the centre is going about choosing its architect in the best possible way. This is an important commission and also a challenging one, requiring particular skills and sensitivities, and in most European countries there would be two independent architects on the selection jury. Here there is only one architect, Rick Mather, who is the author of a long-standing masterplan for the South Bank as a whole. Rather, the key decision-makers seem to be figures such as the centre’s property director Mark Rushworth. Rushworth was formerly at the developers Brookfield, whose Strata tower was awarded the Carbuncle Cup for the ugliest building of the year, and whatever his skills as a developer, the South Bank would benefit from a level of architectural advice that it does not appear to be getting.
A shortlist for the competition was recently announced, which includes some good architects but whose rationale is not obvious. It looks like a bet-hedging list, with several who might be regarded as safe pairs of hands but who don’t have a special affinity for the location. Grimshaw is there, famous for its Eden Project, but which doesn’t seem particularly well suited to the nimble footwork this project would require. One international superstar, Rem Koolhaas’s practice OMA, is there, which raises the question why it was chosen and no others like it. Somewhat bizarrely, another practice, Allies and Morrison, was added after an initial list of seven was announced. It was said that its first emailed application was wrongly rejected as spam.
Of course the Southbank Centre is not making these plans out of a desire to vandalise the place. It wants to improve the backstage areas of its concert halls and art galleries, and it needs to fix the Hayward’s roof. It wants larger foyers. It needs money to do these things, and although the Arts Council has put up m (subject to plans being developed by an absurd deadline), it is not enough. It also likes the idea of “activity”, of having people buzzing over every available surface, and so if it can install money-making business that also attract people it looks like a win-win.
These ideas are not new. Over the past quarter-century successive administrators of the Southbank have put forward similar ideas. They got the architect Terry Farrell to design one such project in the late 1980s, which was roundly criticised for its excessive commercialism. Later, Richard Rogers proposed a giant glass roof that proved too ambitious for its own good. More recently they succeeded in making over the Royal Festival Hall and inserting that Giraffe and Yo! Sushi, the profitability of which has emboldened them to take the idea further. But the restaurants and shops are a relatively small part of the Festival Hall; they do not engulf it.
It’s not that the Hayward and Queen Elizabeth Hall are beyond improvement, or that it’s a bad thing to have a bite to eat from time to time. But these things require care, an awareness of what is special about the place they already have, and an idea of what it could be. None of these things are evident in the brief, in the selection process of the architects, and in the decision not to list the buildings.
The Southbank Centre says that we are at an early stage, and that it will “refine the brief, which will include an appropriate mix and usage of space”. The trouble is that the brief doesn’t need refining so much as tearing up and starting again.
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