Concrete plans

It is difficult to imagine a part of any city, anywhere in the world, that has been more chewed over than London’s South Bank.

Before World War II, it was a place left pretty much to its own devices – first marshland, then wharfs, warehouses, factories, breweries, and a surprisingly large amount of tightly-packed terraced housing, a little of which still remains. It was a private fiefdom: if you had no business there, you had no desire to go there and you probably wouldn’t be welcome anyway.

Commuters arriving by train at Waterloo slid right underneath the area on the Tube link to Bank station that is known to this day as “the Drain”. The “new” Waterloo Bridge, built by teams of female workers at the height of the war, skipped right over the South Bank as if it did not exist, and landed back near Waterloo Station. So one way or another, the place was comprehensively bypassed.

That is, until the Festival of Britain in 1951. A half-planned, half-random division of the area followed the festival, with a split between culture and commerce. Local residents were left to cling on somehow in the remaining area.

The festival – a popular though not financial success, and disliked by the architectural avant-garde of the day for its whimsicality – left the legacy of a fragment of traffic-free southern river embankment (built up from the rubble of the Blitz) and the Royal Festival Hall. The National Film Theatre was built under Waterloo Bridge in 1956-8. So the nucleus of the cultural campus we know today, and which everyone thinks about a great deal without ever coming to a firm conclusion, was there in the Fifties. As was the start of a parallel office city, which nobody ever thinks much about. The colossal Shell Centre was built in phases from 1953-1963. So it went on, through the Sixties. Cultural buildings, paid for out of the public purse, were added and altered with much publicity, while office blocks, low and high, paid for by private developers, appeared as if by magic.

So there are three overlapping histories: the cultural one, the commercial one and the community one. You can best define the South Bank not by the boundaries of its cultural ghetto, but by looking to a wider area: west as far as County Hall, east as far as Blackfriars Bridge where it gives way to Bankside, south as far as the shopping street of Lower Marsh tucked in behind Waterloo Station, and the Old Vic on The Cut. The northern boundary is, of course, the river: a river which is broad, deep, and wild. The South Bank is not like the Left Bank in Paris with its stepping-stone islands across a small, non-tidal river: it is more like being on the seafront at Brighton, with bridges replacing piers. There is no mystery to the fact that it was overlooked for so long, and remains underexploited – it may be very close to the centre of London on the map, but in perceptual terms it has, until recently been another country.

Every so often, the cultural infrastructure of the area is given a shot in the arm. In 1965, the Festival Hall was re-clad and extended forwards, and was soon after joined by new neighbours in the fashionably Brutalist forms of the Hayward Gallery and Queen Elizabeth Hall.

It was at this time that the broad elevated walkways arrived, so establishing a difference in levels that remains a problem today. The Festival Hall had been originally designed by Robert Matthew, Leslie Martin and Peter Moro as a ground-level building: the new arrivals in the Sixties, designed by rather good London County Council architects, were intended to be entered at walkway level. Below is an uneasy twilight world of service yards, car parks and havens for skateboarders. If you dispensed with the walkways these buildings would need some radical alterations to make them work.

That was the Sixties: in the Seventies the London Weekend Television tower by Elsom and Partners (now EPR Architects) arrived downstream of Waterloo Bridge – though this received less attention than Sir Denys Lasdun’s Royal National Theatre, completed in 1976. The theatre had originally been conceived in 1965 as one half of a symmetrical composition, planned further upstream near County Hall, which would also have included a new opera house. Concrete gave way to glass and steel in the late Eighties with Brian Avery’s Museum of the Moving image, under Waterloo Bridge behind the © National Film Theatre. It was a decade before another arts building arrived, and that again is by Avery: the glass rotunda of the new British Film Institute Imax cinema, sitting in the “Bull Ring” underpass at the southern end of Waterloo Bridge. This used to be the cardboard city of London’s homeless: you had to be brave to walk the subways through here from the South Bank to Waterloo Station. Since the Imax arrived, this pedestrian route has become popular again, understandably, because getting to the station on the surface is an obstacle course.

But other building work was happening in the wide strip of land behind the riverside arts buildings, bending north to the river at the once abandoned Oxo building. The Coin Street Community Group (named after a small street in the area) bought this huge site in the dying days of the Greater London Council. Developer Stuart Lipton (then of Greycoat Estates) had come up with a plan for a “Berlin Wall” of offices and shops, with Richard Rogers as architect, but the Coin Street group came up with an alternative. For a time, Richard and Ruthie Rogers could be found manning a stall in Waterloo Station, explaining that their scheme had public and community benefits, too. They lost.

The Coin Street Group’s first act was to build a square of vaguely folksy fair-rent housing on one block of the site: but under its moving and shaking leader, Iain Tuckett, it became more ambitious and design-aware. Young architect Lifschutz Davidson first contributed the award-winning Broadwall street of housing with its outlook tower, then the rebuilt Oxo building with its mix of designer-maker workshops, co-operative housing, and the Harvey Nichols restaurant on top.

Encouraged by this, the main organisations in the area – public and private, cultural and commercial – formed the South Bank Employers Group. Its first project was a series of subtle, but far-reaching improvements to the “spine route” of Upper Ground and Belvedere Road. Lifschutz Davidson’s designs included some very costly, purpose-built street furniture.

The same architects then won the competition for a new pedestrian Hungerford Bridge – soon to be built – and have designed other, so far unbuilt improvements, including Waterloo Place – a pedestrian plaza that removes and civilises the mess in front of the station – and the Thames Lido, a floating swimming pool near the Oxo Tower. With all that to do, Alex Lifschutz and Ian Davidson sat out the next Coin Street competition – to build family housing and a community theatre on the car park site behind the LWT tower. That was won by the emerging practice of Haworth Tompkins, which is also responsible for the Lottery-funded rebuild of the Royal Court Theatre. Construction of its scheme should start soon.

The South Bank is bustling with developments – private projects, like IBM with its Lasdun HQ, the publishing house IPC in its Seifert tower, the huge Sainsbury’s headquarters or Sea Containers House. There are also experimental schemes: Coin Street’s Gabriel’s Wharf market, its radical and successful “Museum of…” arts project in the previously derelict Bargehouse building behind Oxo, the annual Coin Street and Thames festivals, the Peugeot Design Awards, and so forth. The riverside walkway – which used to stop at the National Theatre – now runs all the way through to Blackfriars.

You would imagine, to go by the blanket media coverage that it receives, that the only thing that ever happens on the South Bank concerns the South Bank Centre. Which is funny, because this is the one place where no new building ever happens. While the National Theatre has quietly got on with its own Lottery-funded refurbishment, designed by architect Stanton Williams, and the BFI has built its Imax, the arts centre that includes the Festival Hall, Hayward Gallery and Queen Elizabeth Hall has only a new corporate identity by CDT Design, and the slow restoration of the Festival Hall by architect Allies and Morrison.

Following architect Terry Farrell’s ditched masterplan of 1989, there came the hopelessly over-ambitious, but rather glorious competition-winning “Mexican Wave” revamp planned by the Richard Rogers Partnership. The focal point was the big curvy glass roof that, we were promised, would give this part of the South Bank a climate like Bordeaux. Loads of commercial activity would crowd beneath this roof, but it depended on a huge Arts Council Lottery grant, which last year was eventually withdrawn. Since the Rogers project could not be built piecemeal, it was scrapped.

The South Bank’s director, Nicholas Snowman, departed for Glyndebourne. A new chairman, the Chelsfield property developer Elliot Bernerd, was appointed, and a new chief executive, Karsten Witt from the Vienna Konzerthaus, arrived in May. Another competition for a masterplanner was held. The winner was not a cult name such as Zaha Hadid, Will Alsop or Rem Koolhaas, but the urbane Rick Mather. Mather’s appointment is good news; it shows that common sense and flair can go together on the South Bank.

Profile: Rick Mather

Rick Mather, Oregon-born and bred, a lover of cities and gardens, has been based in London for more than three decades, and is now in his early 60s. This makes him much the same generation as Norman Foster and Richard Rogers. Unlike them, he is a late developer, who only began to come to prominence in the late Eighties after years working first for others, and then in his own practice doing small-scale domestic and retail work. His house conversions are legendary and several young practices have sprung up from the Mather stable. The Zen restaurant chain brought him wider attention – he still does restaurants, such as The Avenue in London’s St James’s – but in recent years he has worked on a profusion of bigger projects.

Mather has sorted out the incomplete Sir Denys Lasdun-designed campus of the University of East Anglia with some judicious new buildings and open spaces – a good dry run for the South Bank. This brought him to the attention of the academic community, and he followed up UEA with buildings at Keble College, Oxford, and Reading University, plus a masterplan for Southampton University. His unconventional first commercial office building, dating from 1992 in Wapping, now houses The Times. But his big break – though it must not have seemed like it at the time – was coming second to Norman Foster in the competition to redesign the British Museum’s Great Court. Many regarded Mather’s as the better scheme: it showed that he could work on a large scale, within a sensitive cultural context.

Soon after, he was brought in to refine BDP’s big Lottery-funded redesign of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. With its great glass roof, spanning a previously open courtyard, this gives a clue as to how his British Museum might have looked: it has recently opened to acclaim. Other commissions, to redesign London’s Wallace Collection and augment Sir John Soane’s Dulwich Picture Gallery, are on site now. Mather also plans to transform Hammersmith’s Lyric Theatre and the Drill Hall theatre in Bloomsbury. Last year, he came second to Foster again, narrowly failing to win The Stirling Prize for a masterly new house in Hampstead.

He talks wryly of the way he seems to be rubbing shoulders with the great and the good these days. He deserves to – the South Bank can only benefit from his keen intelligence and urbanistic instincts. He likes to work with difficult, characterful buildings: he believes in the city as a civilising cultural force. Consultations are now under way: in September he presents his ideas. He may propose keeping the Hayward Gallery as well as building an all-new National Film Centre for the BFI, now that MoMI is closing. There will be squares, shops, a sense of public life. We can expect excellent landscape proposals. Above all, he will make the vital connection to the greater South Bank and the rest of London: he won the job on that basis.

Latest articles