A sequel better than the original

The NFT has been revamped and rebranded to raise awareness of the BFI and make the best use of its resources and location

The National Film Theatre, home to one of the world’s largest cinematic archives, is reborn today following a £5m overhaul and extension. Controversially, it will lose its NFT moniker to become known as BFI Southbank, a move intended to give greater exposure to the activities of its owner, the British Film Institute.

NFT was axed as the venue’s identity under a sweeping brand architecture review undertaken last year by Johnson Banks. It was led by Eddie Berg, artistic director of BFI Southbank and the man in charge of the overhaul. Johnson Banks’ ‘lens flare’ marque replaced the more reserved circular BFI logo on corporate communications last autumn and has since been emblazoned across the side of the venue’s new glass entrance.

Berg says that while many people are familiar with the BFI’s sub-brands (the NFT, London Film Festival and Sight & Sound magazine among them), they are not aware of the BFI itself. ‘Our chairman, Anthony Minghella, asked whether anyone knows if these brands come from the same organisation and whether that is important. Our staff and governors decided it was. So we wanted some recognition of BFI as the masterbrand and we needed the other brands to be consistent with that,’ explains Berg.

Expanded, though still nestled tightly against an archway under London’s Waterloo Bridge, BFI Southbank will act as the gateway to all the BFI’s activities – publishing, festivals, education and the huge national film archive – in a way that the NFT never did, says Berg.

And there are wider ambitions still. The venue, with its new art gallery, educational project space, electronic archive and bookstore, is to act as a test bed for a purpose-built national centre focusing on the past, present and future of moving-image culture. Berg says that the London Development Agency has now given ‘major financial support’ for a feasibility study for such a centre, after earlier proposals for a King’s Cross site never came to fruition. ‘If you were constructing a purpose-built centre for the moving image now, you certainly wouldn’t choose one of the busiest bridges in Europe,’ he remarks.

Nevertheless, much has been made of the Waterloo site liberated from the former Museum of the Moving Image, which closed in 1999. A new main entrance, located around the corner from the Thames-side film café frontage, features a striking light cube and opens into a burnished metal-floored foyer.

The architectural and interior designs for the space are by Buchanan Associates, although several additional designers have been involved in the creation of the space. ‘In terms of the overall design approach, I wanted to deal with the busy-ness of the colours, pillars and piping which make this a complicated site,’ says Berg. ‘I wanted to create as legible a site as possible, with a very simple colour palette and white lighting system. This should allow the people to fill and animate the space in a completely different way to before.’

The signs are designed by Whybrow Signing Consultants, which worked with Johnson Banks to adapt the primary identity. The light scheme was created by NDYLight, the lighting design division of engineering practice Norman Disney & Young.

But one of the major selling points of the new-look venue is the Adjaye Associates-designed Mediatheque, which Berg describes as a ‘celluloid jukebox’. This state-of-the-art viewing room offers free access to some of the material in the BFI archive.

David Adjaye’s interiors use black, grey and white colours and a backlit honeycomb structure that sets the space apart from Buchanan Associates’ foyer. Mediatheque’s 14 viewing stations are ‘hung’ from the ceiling and screens swivel to wider floor areas to provide access for wheelchair users. The design has been licensed by Adjaye, allowing venues across the country to introduce similar moving image archive rooms.

The Mediatheque archive itself is accessed via a screen interface designed by Hoop Associates. About 300 films have been uploaded to the system so far, although this is a tiny fraction of the BFI archive and the organisation does not currently have enough funding to transfer the whole catalogue.

A bookshop is reintroduced to the site for the first time in nine years, with retail design by JCR Interiors. It claims to offer the largest selection of cinema-related books and DVDs in London.

According to JCR Interiors founder Jethro Clunies-Ross, a key element of the design is to reduce the apparent height of the 110m2 space, which is about 8m tall. ‘I have tried to bring it down a little, using visual stop points at about 3m from the ground to suggest that this is the height of the shop,’ says Clunies-Ross. Large ‘sails’ on the store’s exterior are used to shade the glass structure from the morning sunshine.

Another key element in the BFI Southbank relaunch is a 170-seat Benugo café and bar, designed by Path Design. Against Berg’s stripped-back monochrome palette, Path’s scheme introduces bursts of brightly coloured furniture and decorative fabrics and wallpapers, influenced by designers such as Charles Eames, Nina Campbell and Tricia Guild.

BFI Southbank opens its doors today with an artistic programme including audio-visual festival Optronica, the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival and a week-long series of large-scale outdoor screenings of material from the archive in the evenings.

• £5m overhaul and extension of old National Film Theatre complex to form Mediatheque electronic archive, art gallery, bookshop, bar and café, project room and digital cinema
• Supporting cast:
  – Johnson Banks (brand identity)
  – Buchanan Associates (architecture and interiors)
  – Adjaye Associates (Mediatheque)
  – Path Design (Benugo Bar & Kitchen)
  – JCR Interiors (bookshop) 
  – Whybrow Signing Consultants (signs)
  – NDYLight (lighting)
  – Hoop Associates (film archive interface and print graphics)
• For programme information, visit www.bfi.org.uk

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