A part of the masterplan

London’s South Bank is due for its biggest transformation since the South Bank Centre was created in the 1950s, and so far the proposals have been well received by local residents

Paradoxically reviled as a concrete jungle, yet praised as a testament to 1950s architecture, London’s South Bank Centre has never been short of attention. It is currently undergoing its biggest overhaul since it was born out of the Festival of Britain in 1951, and has now sought the opinions of local residents and businesses on the proposed changes.

The result of this research is, according to masterplan architect Rick Mather, widespread local support for the draft plan, by Mather’s team. This includes Alan Penn of University College London’s Space Syntax Laboratory, who aims to ensure pedestrians can move freely and safely around the site, and architect David Bonnett, responsible for enabling disabled people to negotiate the site with ease. The team claims the masterplan is “the best, to date, to be put forward for improving the South Bank”.

Residents, SBC visitors and local employees all want more green space. To keep them happy, Mather is promising parkland covering an area the size of Trafalgar Square. He is launching an international competition to find a landscape architect to extend the existing gardens, and landscape the space between the various arts buildings.

A second competition is now being launched to select an architect to redesign the existing Hungerford car park and Jubilee Gardens site next to the nearby London Eye.

This area will include a new concert hall, the new British Film Institute centre, a “gateway” building, replacement car park and park area. Mather and his masterplan team are hoping to appoint architects early in the New Year, with work expected to start in 2002, the Queen’s Golden Jubilee year.

The new concert hall will be medium-sized, and aims to “fill the gap in provision of a performance space for chamber and jazz music”, says Mather. With a proposed 1500 seats, it is now larger than the original brief.

When it is complete, work will begin on the auditorium and acoustics of the Royal Festival Hall, to provide continuity for concert-goers. The RFH is currently undergoing slow renovation by architect Allies and Morrison, including work to improve its foyers and increase public space.

Interior and graphic design work for the SBC is still a long way off, however. Signage and street furniture around the site are “important elements” of the masterplan, as is the interior of the new concert hall, says an SBC spokeswoman, but it is too early to start talking to consultancies. “The first stage is to appoint an architect to provide an overall vision for the site according to Mather’s Masterplan,” she adds.

SBC chief executive Karsten Witt, who joined last May from the Vienna Konzerthaus, says it may appoint architects with in-house design capabilities, or keep the design work separate. Again, he says it is too early to tell.

There are benefits to building signage, and particularly way-finding, into design plans early on, says senior associate Finn Butler of Design Research Unit, which specialises in large scale signage projects. He says the SBC is not a naturally easily site to navigate, so it would make sense to consider how pedestrians move around early on in the design plan, which could limit the need for “emergency” signage.

The BFI, officially a tenant of the SBC, has a different design strategy for its Film Centre. It is consolidating all of its public activities under one roof on the Hungerford site. This will involve the creation of a new, larger National Film Theatre with five screens – which is located a few hundred feet away from the existing site – and the relocation of its Oxford Street headquarters, library and film stills collection.

The Brian Avery-designed Museum of the Moving Image, which closed in August 1999, will re-open on the Hungerford site under a different name. The entire site will be within spitting distance of the BFI’s giant glass Imax cinema in the “Bull Ring” underpass south of Waterloo Bridge, also designed by Avery.

“The new centre aims to make film more accessible to the masses – it does not currently enjoy an equal footing with the other arts in this country,” says a BFI spokeswoman.

The BFI’s design approach is to work from the “inside out”, says head of South Bank Capital Projects Ian Temple. “Our design concepts are at an early stage, but we are creating the interiors first, rather than trying to fill a shell created by the SBC architect,” he says. This policy has meant the BFI is talking to museum and interior designers before the post of masterplan architect has even been advertised.

The thinking behind this is to focus on how people will find their way around the new film centre, including a signage scheme, and then give the entire site – including the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Hayward Gallery and RFH – visual cohesion with a shell designed by the masterplan architect, he says.

It is also worth considering how signage at the SBC complements public information at, say, the nearby Tate Modern, says Butler. “In a sprawling site such as London’s South Bank, accurate distances are vital, and it is very important that they correspond between sites. 100m at the Tate Modern must be the same 100m at the South Bank, or weary pedestrians will start complaining.”

The museum designer will create the content and interiors for the new Momi and an appointed design team will create the BFI buildings’ interiors. A separate SBC-appointed external architect will create the new concert hall on the Hungerford site.

Temple denies that this potentially complex structure of designers and architects will be creatively frustrating and bureaucratic. “It does depend how successfully the project is managed,” he says. “The secret is to work to one clear vision, which is provided in this case by Rick Mather’s masterplan.”

The BFI hopes to shortlist design consultancies before the end of the year, but has not yet decided on the pitch process.

“We will not be judging consultancies solely on their credentials,” says Temple, “and we may consider holding paid creative pitches.” It hopes to add to the design team next year to create, among other things, a possible new BFI marque.

Work is also underway at the SBC on a retail strategy for the site, to “support the art experience and reinforce the South Bank as a cultural destination”, according to the SBC spokeswoman. This can only mean more work for design groups.

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