Making bank

“Southbank Centre Celebrates Festival of Britain with MasterCard”

In 2011, the Southbank Centre celebrated its foundational myth – the halcyon days of the Festival of Britain. Southbank Centre celebrated it with Mastercard.

We have become inured to commercials that come across all self-effacing and sympathetic to our ‘busy lives’ – texts for deodorant that read like an understanding e-mail from a friend (hell, if you live in east London and you’re under 30, you’ve probably met the chump who had to write this crap). And when the doyens of evil, BP, sponsor exhibitions of ‘Modern Art’ at the Tate, the effect is a dozen or so angry letters, a blip in the papers (the lefty ones), and some soon-forgotten synapses firings off minor salvos of outrage. But then we tire, we need perking up, so we buy a cup of caffeinated swill with a triple-barreled moniker from the nearest place that can serve it up, a place whose only aim is to return profit to the shareholders and whose staff look a great deal like they don’t like to be where they are. Etc etc

We can’t escape It.

The birthday bash that saw Southbank and Mastercard get it on, marked 60 years for a series of cultural buildings that have stood witness to better days. When it was constructed, the NHS was only 3 years old. London – Britain – stood in ruins. It was an exceptional time to build. And for the time, the Festival was an exception. A doubly-unlikely piece of architecture.

But by no means are they works of great architecture. The Hayward is – for an architect, admittedly – very easy to love (do other people feel this way? Who knows. I don’t know ‘other people’) and Queen Elizabeth Hall is nicely contrived, and everywhere that concrete confidently asserts itself. But the connections through the site are scarcely smooth, the loading zones cut up the ground plane and the ubiquitous podium levels don’t really live up to their potential. As an ensemble, what it is, is a reminder of ambition in architecture and society; of trust between client and modernity; and an heroic use of form in shaping both architecture and urbanity. Architects, perhaps more than most, know that it can work. It can be great. They may not be great, but they are to be treasured.

So there is some goodwill accompanying the plans to (re-)develop it. Or, there was.

Feilden Clegg Bradley are good architects. They do good buildings. Architect’s architect, that kind of thing. They have admirable concern for environmental design. They understand that a building has to mediate competing and conflicting desires. But, as far as conflicting desires go, retaining the Southbank Centre as a pure site of cultural grounding ( and that miraculous birth) while meeting the financial challenges of the times we live in will never find a resolved architectural treatment. We’ve tried postmodernism’s come-hither flings with capitalism, it was excess upon excess – it was nauseating.

The times we are now living in are certainly as exceptional as 1951. The financial crisis is an unparalleled global event that is, unfortunately, only just getting started. The state is utterly indifferent to social well-being (to culture of course, but also to providing the things in life that society deems ‘good’: steady employment, affordable accommodation, leisure, the pursuit of happiness – however it is understood). All that matters is debt, as opposed to the recently departed materfamilias – for whom it was all about wealth.

FCB’s plans are good. Pretty much everything proposed for the existing complex is well thought through: the podiums are moderated by new, pedestrian-friendly links through the site which knits the whole together, giving the ground plane a purpose beyond service zones. Importantly, the architecture reflects the purpose, using slightly skewed lines to break down the cartesian plan, adding something of the life of the sprightly roofscape.

Shame about the new bits. The fantastic skating area in the undercroft of Queen Elizabeth Hall is getting shafted. But! they’re going to give them a new specially designed skatepark – even better! No it isn’t, it can’t be, don’t even try. This is the most insensitive and troubling part of the plans. Where the skaters are right now a Costa will materialize. That land is lucrative baby, don’t hold it back! As long as kicking out the skaters remains, so too will opposition. And it will frame the debate around the entire scheme, especially the good bits. It’s naive to think this point of contention can be gotten around. And one suspects, without that land the whole scheme is moot.

The addition of 5000sqm of commercial space, most of it in a single long block beside Waterloo bridge, isn’t ever going to be received well. But take a look at the Wagamama’s on a sunny weekend and it has the biggest line in town. So, should we be outraged that the proposed development is 20% commercial space? I’d say yes.

The other great cultural building on the south bank is the Tate Modern. Out the front, an enormous lawn (park?) gives one of the best views of London. It is open, inviting. Rarely does it suffer the indignity of having so many little buildings (godhelpme ‘Pop-Ups’) that the Southbank Centre suffers, like architectural-pigeons covering the site in crap (David Kohn’s building/ship exempted: it gets it). But go behind the Tate. Further. Past the new bit. Don’t even look up.

The blue-fin building and the, um, other, red-ish one, were dropped onto Southwark just as the crash crunched. It testifies that the good urban design logic of covering the ground plane in restaurants and commercial space is sometimes a load of bollocks. It isn’t commercial enterprise, it is capital in fierce competition. I used to work there and frequented a proper local little take away. They have suffered because of the new development. Fuck community. Make bank. In the development itself, the only players that have clung on are the ones with enough dosh to wait out the others. Of course, the spoils are worth it. RBS floods the site with a herd of cashed-up dickheads who need to feed their faces. But with the overheads, the high rents and brutal competition, there’s almost always one space being liquidated and there are no winners. The Southbank Centre would be no different.

And then still, why is it wrong that a chain of chains should stalk the pavement around the Centre? People, citizens, need to eat. Even I (me!) have gone to the Pizza Express out the back of the Festival Hall because I needed to eat and eat cheaply. I think it has much to do with the presentations so far. The press pack doesn’t contain a view of the commercial spaces. As far as one can tell, anemically rendered in that mixed-use line-drawn shorthand, the block forms are made of the most neutral, non-committal material treatment a good architect can muster. What’s so wrong with showing some restaurants? Is it because giving expression to it would disrupt the supposed resolution of the brief? Does it repress the expression of its function? One can only imagine what Koolhaas would think of it all.

And finally, the rehearsal block looming over the complex. Both at the back of the site (doesn’t block the views to the Thames for the rest of the complex) and above the other buildings (to secure the best views) it is far too big to harmonize with the existing architecture and too conflicted to justify its position. The large floor plans of the rehearsal areas are likely where they are in order to generate revenue> Corporate-Event-Space. While not as blatant as hoisting up the Cutty Sark to rent out its undercroft (such a shitty, shitty building that one…) this piece of the puzzle also suffers from a ghosted, not-quite-there rendering.

It’s a shame that there is an emerging argument here that culture and commercial are not mutually exclusive. Building Design cites FCB’s ‘creative producer’, Clare Hughes as saying

“Commercial is not a dirty word – most of our historic towns and cities were built on the idea that people came together to exchange goods and services. The notion that commerce and culture should be kept apart doesn’t understand how human society works and has evolved.”

Sheesh. If only the commercial side of a scheme like this was people coming together to exchange goods and services. Twenty-first century capitalism is a much advanced beast. If you are going to defend commercial space, fine, but don’t defend capitalism. And don’t tell me art and commercial can co-exist, because that isn’t art.

Luckily, the architects have been told to go away and work on the proposal some more. I hope they seriously rethink it. Because if they believe that what’s proposed is the best solution (which many of us don’t) they need to express it through the architecture. At least we can then have a proper, grounded argument. As it stands, behind the milk-glass visuals and the family-values sketches, it seems like a crass arrangement of architecture at the service of capital. A bit disingenuous. Just like those ads for godknowswhat with ukuleles on the soundtrack.