Culture Vultures

London’s cultural hot spots are vying for funds to pay for revamps that will improve the face of the city.

SBHD: London’s cultural hot spots are vying for funds to pay for revamps that will improve the face of the city.

The lure of so-called Millennium Funding has stimulated a headlong rush to fill out application forms on the part of the capital’s cultural institutions. After years of recession and cut-backs, the promise of funds has resulted in a feverish wave of commissions to architects and designers entrusted with the task of upgrading and extending run-down, neglected facilities.

The main branches of the lottery to be approached are the Arts Council of England National Lottery Board, the Millennium Fund, and the National Heritage Lottery Fund. The Millennium Fund will probably provide for projects of a more specifically celebratory nature, such as the South Bank Centre’s proposed Festival of Britain 2001.

Only one foreign architect has benefited so far in the scrum, which most British practitioners, still suffering the effects of years of under-employment, and a complete dearth of public commissions, will probably think is more than enough. Sadly, though, no new names have emerged in the hand-out. The British establishment seems to be playing safe as usual.

SBHD: South Bank Centre

The Richard Rogers Partnership was selected as architect for a new masterplan for the South Bank Centre in September 1994. The announcement was the result of an international competition in which ten practices were asked to develop plans for the site which would make the concrete-built, riverside arts centre more welcoming and user-friendly. The construction of the new Chunnel terminal at Waterloo, opening the area to a flood of foreign visitors, finally prompted the authorities to take some action over the degradation of the complex and surrounding area.

The brief for the masterplan was prepared by architecture and planning consultant DEGW. It emphasised the importance of clarifying access routes and orientation, and suggested the demolition of the 1960s raised walkways. Rogers’ proposal, one of the boldest, entails covering over the whole site, except for the Royal Festival Hall, with an undulating transparent roof canopy, known as the Crystal Palace, to create a sheltered environment. It substantially increases the accommodation available without new construction, and gives a unified architectural expression to the various elements of the centre, without significantly altering the original buildings. At the centre is a plaza surrounded by caf&#233s, with the main entrance on the south side, opening on to a grand forecourt intended to reconnect the centre with the rest of the neighbourhood. The entrance from the north is upgraded by replacing the Hungerford Bridge pedestrian walkway with a pedestrian bridge containing a travelator.

The scheme, generated by an innovative use of technology, calls to mind Rogers’ Beaubourg Centre in Paris, now 20 years old. The Beaubourg may not have aged gracefully, but in terms of creating a dynamic cultural magnet in the city, which is precisely what the South Bank board hopes to achieve, its success outshone everybody’s expectations.

Since the announcement of the appointment, the scheme has gained the approval of 75 per cent of visitors to an exhibition of the competition results. The brief itself is now being refined in discussion between specialist user-groups, client and architect. The start of construction depends on obtaining ú40m-ú50m of lottery funding, but completion is scheduled for 2000, ready for a proposed new Festival of Britain in 2001.

In the meantime, refurbishment of the Royal Festival Hall is underway in the hands of architect Allies and Morrison, while graphics consultancy CDT Design is working on a new corporate identity and signage for the South Bank Centre as a whole.

SBHD: Tate Gallery at Bankside

The Tate Gallery’s plans to create a new museum of modern art in a former power station gained substance in January when Swiss architect Herzog & de Meuron was announced winner of the international competition for its design. Five other practices, including the British architect David Chipperfield, had been shortlisted in the final round of the competition.

The Tate Gallery of Modern Art will complement the existing premises on Millbank, which will be dedicated to British Art. Only about 1000 of the 4500 paintings and sculptures in the Tate collection can be exhibited at Millbank, plus another 145 in Liverpool and 80 in St Ives. Bankside will provide 11 148m2 of new exhibition space in the first phase of development: more than the whole of the Millbank building.

Bankside was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1947, completed in 1963, and decommissioned in 1981. Since then it has been under constant threat of demolition. The Tate was attracted to the building because of its architecture and its central London location, close to Blackfriars bridge, and opposite St Paul’s cathedral on the south bank of the river.

The Herzog & de Meuron scheme to convert it into a gallery is the most restrained of the six shortlisted projects. It leaves the original architecture intact, with the galleries inserted in the north bays of the building looking down into the main public concourse in the turbine hall space. On the roof is a restaurant. The scheme is representative of Herzog & de Meuron’s rational approach, which is much admired in Europe, but scarcely known in Britain.

The Tate has agreed terms for purchase of the building with owner Nuclear Electric. This year, redundant plant will be cleared from the site, and repair and stabilisation works carried out. Construction at a cost of ú80m is scheduled to start in 1996 and complete in time for opening to the public in 2000, depending on receipt of a major contribution from the Millennium Fund.

SBHD: ICA

The ICA commissioned Alsop and Strmer last year to carry out a feasibility study for its relocation to larger, more flexible accommodation in preparation for the 21st century. The proposal that attracted most interest from the ICA board was for new premises housed within a disused railway bridge at Blackfriars. The scheme is typical of the exuberant, inventive approach of the practice, illustrated by the new, blue, Htel de Departement building in Marseilles, and the competition-winning proposal for a National Literature Centre for Swansea which was ultimately rejected for being too radical. At a cost of ú17m, the ICA will rely on a contribution from the Millennium Fund to get the project off the ground.

Alsop and Strmer is waiting for the go-ahead to put the scheme in for planning permission, in order to put a funding application on a firm footing, and hopes to be retained as architect for the design of the building if funds are obtained and the board decides to continue with the scheme. There are still doubts about the off-centre location of the site and problems attached to building on it, such as the constraints imposed by the St Paul’s sight-lines.

SBHD: Royal Opera House

The Royal Opera House is applying to the Arts Council Lottery Board for more than ̼50m to part-fund the cost of its development project. The rest of the money Рanother ̼100m Рis to be raised by appeal and by retail development on the site, and the scheme is scheduled for completion in 2000, after a two-year closure.

The current project received planning permission in November 1994, after the opera house finally decided to remove the speculative office element of the scheme which has aroused ferocious opposition from local residents over a number of years. This allowed Jeremy Dixon.Edward Jones.BDP, which has revised its scheme many times since it was originally appointed ten years ago, to put new ROH facilities on sites in Russell Street and Bow Street originally intended for offices.

The scheme involves restoration and refurbishment of the Grade I listed opera house, plus the glass and iron Floral Hall, which will become a new public area, with a box office beneath it. A new arcade building along the north and east sides of Covent Garden Piazza will house shops and restaurants and a second entrance to the theatre. New production, technical and administrative facilities will be provided, including a new auditorium entered via the new piazza entrance with studios above it. The programme represents the third stage of a development which originally won planning permission in 1990 and began with the construction of retail units on James Street. The second stage, for which approval was won in November 1993, will be the construction of permanent accommodation for the Royal Ballet. Construction of the third phase will not begin until funding is in place.

SBHD: Planetarium

Construction of Fletcher Priest’s scheme for the transformation of the London Planetarium, adjoining Madame Tussaud’s, is currently on site and scheduled for completion at the end of May, without any assistance from the lottery.

The redevelopment initiative, costing ú4.5m, was partly provoked by the huge queues of visitors which used to stretch along the Marylebone Road at the single entrance which served both institutions. The relocation of the entrance to the Planetarium around the corner in Alsop Place will help to break down the congestion on the main street, and also gives access to wheelchair users. The entrance opens into a new tower with a spiral stair and lift, which opens into the auditorium at first floor level. By raising the floor of the auditorium to the upper level, the architect has created a new holding and exhibition area underneath it, which serves as a transition space between Madame Tussaud’s and the Planetarium. The auditorium is upgraded with the replacement of the original Zeiss star projector with a Digistar projector, using the most advanced computer graphics.

Fletcher Priest is a relatively commercial practice, with a reputation for solid new-build and conversion work in a reasonably pared-down style, and just enough interest to attract the eye. Planetarium administrator Undine Concannon chose the practice for “its innovative and ingenious approach”, and because it allowed for minimal disturbance to Madame Tussaud’s. Internal fitting-out and signage are in the hands of in-house design group Tussaud Group Studio, which is also responsible for making the wax figures next door.

SBHD: National Portrait Gallery

Having opened new galleries last year for the twentieth century collection, designed by John Miller and Partners, plus a new education centre and the Heinz Archive and Library, the National Portrait Gallery has just commissioned Jeremy Dixon.Edward Jones to work on a new scheme for a lecture theatre, caf&#233, shop and improved access to the building.

The practice won the commission on the basis of a presentation comprising three optional schemes for the site. The areas available for development include basement space, and a long thin courtyard enclosed on three sides which is overlooked by the National Gallery, raising issues of rights of light which will have to be resolved during the detailed briefing sessions now taking place. A final scheme is to be submitted to the client in May. Once the proposed cost is known, steps will be taken towards securing funding, which is likely to include an application for lottery money. The gallery anticipates the whole process of fund-raising and construction will take about five years – in time for opening in 2000.

In terms of built projects, Jeremy Dixon.Edward Jones is best-known for interesting work in the field of housing, which showed a tendency towards Post modernism during the 1980s. Most recently it has completed a scheme for the extension of the Leeds City Art Gallery. But it is most famous for its role, as architect, along with BDP, in the saga of the Royal Opera House redevelopment.

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