Architecture: A prom and then a promenade: Peter Dormer looks at plans to make the Royal Albert Hall more comfortable and applauds a proposal for a pedestrian plaza linking it to the Albert Memorial

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The Independent Culture
There is a popular movement afoot: it is to give the streets and squares back to those who walk rather than drive. Birmingham stole the march on London this year when it completed the pedestrianisation of its centre and, with Victoria Square as its jewel, created one of the best modern public spaces in Britain. But some visionary thinking from the management of the Royal Albert Hall offers London a chance to create something equally imaginative.

Contained within its redevelopment plans launched earlier this month was a suggestion that a part of Kensington Gore should be sunk into a tunnel to allow the building of a plaza linking the Albert Hall with the Albert Memorial.

The plan would realise Prince Albert's vision for this area and spur the Government into repairing Albert's memorial, whose innards are crumbling. This monumental interpretation of a medieval shrine deserves repair because it is a complex memorial to the richness and inventiveness of the Victorian Arts and Crafts movement as well as to a dead prince.

The Royal Albert Hall is a part of an extraordinarily decorated Victorian set piece connecting with Norman Shaw's Albert Hall Mansions and the (now empty) Royal College of Organists. Had this all been built in the Eighties it would have generated its own publishing boom in Post- Modern architectural theory.

As it is, the overall effect is spoiled by the heavy traffic in Kensington Gore, which cuts off Arcadia, as represented by Kensington Gardens, from Art and Science, as represented by the Albert Hall. And the immediate environs of the hall are ruined by the road running round the base and the car park at the front.

Unfortunately, although getting rid of the car park and the encircling ribbon of road is a priority in the newly announced plans for renovation, uniting the hall with the memorial by sinking the Gore is not. And if it is pushed up the agenda it appears that officers from English Heritage will oppose it. Their initial reaction to this part of the scheme was bloody.

At the moment the emphasis is on a pounds 24m development of the building that will improve conditions for the audience in the auditorium and foyers; make it easier to put on a wider range of shows; upgrade the conditions for artists and staff; and, most important, transform the setting of the building. This will include pedestrianising the roadway that runs around the hall and a facelift for the public area to the south.

The Royal Albert Hall is a masterpiece. This big brick circus, with its glass and iron dome, tends to remind people either of Imperial Rome or a very large jelly mould. Its current capacity is 5,000 people (in the past it took more, but safety and other standards have changed) and when it was built it was designed to provide as many seats as possible for the least cost. Like an egg, it contains the maximum volume within the thinnest shell, just thick enough to accommodate an elaborate series of staircases.

Structurally this Grade I Listed national monument has proved sound and much of the engineering, especially the roof structure, impresses those who see it as being cleverly and economically engineered. One of its most interesting features is hidden: an elaborate system of vent shafts and ducts within the brickwork through which fresh air used to be pumped to every part of the building. (Fire regulations have rendered the system defunct this past 80 years). The hall excited the public when it opened. Among its other innovations were thousands of gas jets that lit the auditorium and could be ignited by electricity in 10 seconds.

The building has its faults, however. When it was built (1871) it was joined to a great conservatory that provided it with a main foyer and many lavatories. In 1889 the conservatory was demolished, leaving the hall short of space. It also has no back door or service entrance. Moreover, the Victorians happily divided the audience into first, second, third and fourth class citizens with the result that today 40 per cent of the audience have to make do with poor facilities and bad access to the auditorium. People coming into the arena do so underground through a maze of dreary basement corridors, and refresh themselves in conditions that even intensive pig farmers are forbidden to employ: the bar provision for the 'underclass' amounts to half a square yard per person.

The Building Design Partnership have produced a scheme that will provide air conditioning, new bars and kitchens, and an underground services cavern beneath the South Steps which will take four 44-ton lorries side by side. Under the North Frontage (facing the Albert Memorial) there will be an underground cafe and bar area, which will be reached via descending spiral staircases on either side of the hall. The South Porch is to be built as a major entrance with a grand staircase sweeping up to a new restaurant. The floor of the arena is to be redesigned and stepped, and sight lines improved so that all in the audience are treated as equal.

Again there is good news for strollers. The gallery that runs a quarter of a mile around the top of the building and which is the width of a street will be refurnished and decorated. After 120 years perhaps it will at last fulfil Prince Albert's expectations of 'an opportunity for a leisurely promenade, brilliantly illuminated, adorned with chosen works of art'.

Aesthetically these improvements will walk a tight-rope of good taste. Admiring Victorian design is one thing, replicating it in order to decorate the improvements and extensions outlined here is another. It is in the details of the light fittings, furniture, tiling and wall decoration that the success of the internal redevelopment will be judged. It appears that the decoration and fittings will be in Victorian style. I am an agnostic on this. I hate fake Victoriana in modern hotels, offices and conference centres but I can see that putting modern design and decoration in such a setting as the Royal Albert Hall is extraordinarily hard. London has some dreadful examples of inappropriate modern design abutting on to old interiors, most notably the neurotic quasi Gothic 'cloisters' around the City's medieval Guildhall.

Yet the marriage of good new design with that which is good but old can be done - witness Levitt Bernstein's theatre within a theatre at Manchester's Royal Exchange or Sir Norman Foster's Sackler gallery at the Royal Academy, London. For the grand staircase that is to be created at the Albert Hall's south entrance it would be exciting to have one of Eva Jiricna's beautiful steel and glass staircases: materials appropriate to a Victorian building.

Those considerations aside, once the hall has achieved its immediate list of improvements, it is to be hoped that energy will be put into unifying the site with the Albert Memorial. For, like the citizens of so many cities (and even villages), Londoners have a terible time on foot and the situation worsens year by year with villainous traffic engineers trying to corral pedestrians on to narrow, overcrowded pavements. Opening up spaces in the way envisaged by the Albert Hall management acknowledges the fundamental point that to enjoy an urban landscape you need to be able to wander about in it, and not be funnelled through narrow gaps in ugly steel barriers in a bizarre parody of the sheep trials in One Man and His Dog.

The writer is Fellow in Critical Appreciation of the Applied Arts, University of East Anglia.

(Photograph and graphic omitted)