Route to the future

With the arrival of a vibrant new open air art gallery and the newly completed Spine Route, Zena Farel welcomes the transformation of London’s South Bank.

If you are among those who habitually avoid the derelict rat-run behind London’s South Bank Centre, it’s time to take another look. Gone are the litter-strewn streets and squalor; even the perennial problems caused by confusing signposting are a thing of the past, there are now smart, simply-designed finger-posts and street maps.

Renamed the “Spine Route”, the streets linking Waterloo Station with some of London’s most famous arts venues have been transformed by architect Lifschutz Davidson into a vibrant arts boulevard.

The festive appearance of the area has been achieved less by the introduction of substantial landscaping, than by the stainless steel street-lighting which incorporates an innovative open-air art gallery. The street-lights are designed to supply safer, brighter lighting and also to provide internal illumination for banners which are hung from them.

The open competition to find the 33 6m-high banner designs has produced an eclectic and dynamic mix of the painterly and the bizarre, including computer-generated images of muscular legs and flying plastic pigs. No one could accuse the panel of playing it safe.

But, with an overall emphasis on functionality and simplicity, the street furniture of the Spine Route is streamlined and easy on the eye. The preponderance of co-ordinating steel litter-bins and cycle-racks is most welcome. These, along with newly widened pavements generously studded with matching steel bollards, the installation of CCTV, 150 semi-mature trees and traffic-calming measures give the whole area an inviting, people-friendly atmosphere.

This, however, is just the first stage of a project which includes the partial rebuilding of the South Bank River Walk, improvements around Waterloo Station and a proposed central London bus service linking Covent Garden, the South Bank and the Tower of London. The group responsible for the radical regeneration is the South Bank Employers’ Group – an association of major local businesses and cultural organisations – which is regarded as a pioneering partnership between the private and public sectors.

Kate Hoey, MP for Vauxhall and long-time supporter of the scheme, says, “The Spine Route is the first positive proof that something is happening on the South Bank. This would not have been achieved without genuine partnership between employers, the local community and local authorities. The South Bank shows that there is another way to tackle London’s problems.”

One of the group’s aims, now well underway, is to create a much-needed coherent visual identity for the South Bank, including the wasteland around Waterloo – once described as “a desperate, blighted landscape which could demean Sarajevo”.

The history of Waterloo Station since 1848 is one of sporadic, unplanned development and the area presents particular problems for pedestrians. The proposed Waterloo Place should put an end to the nightmare of confusing signposting and badly-routed walkways. Pedestrians are relegated to the dangerously gloomy and often flooded underpass. In future, people will be able to walk directly from Victory Arch on to a new public square with easy access to shops and cafés, as well as the Imax cinemas and bus station.

A promising start has been made with the installation of signage, initially created by Henrion Ludlow and Schmidt and CDT Design. The subtle monochrome finger-posts are ideally sited, clearly visible and accessible to pedestrian and driver alike. Accompanied by comprehensive, primary-coloured maps and information structures which cleverly give a bird’s-eye-view of the area, it’s just possible that the days of the utterly lost, frustrated visitor wandering the South Bank could be over – now that would really be progress.

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