Architecture: And for our next cunning plan

The South Bank is looking for yet another scheme that will rejuvenate the world's biggest arts complex.
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The Independent Culture
A little less than a year after the farce that ended the ambitious plan by Richard Rogers to put a glass roof over the entire South Bank Centre, the complex is following the showbiz maxim to pick itself up, dust itself down and start all over again.

This week sees the announcement of a shortlist for a new master planner in what will be the third formal attempt to sort out the problems that bedevil the centre.

The South Bank may be Britain's largest arts complex, but it was not planned that way. It grew up in an ad hoc fashion after the Royal Festival Hall was completed for the 1951 Festival of Britain, and despite the Sixties' bid to impose structure on it with raised walkways, its nature still shows. To call it a "centre" at all is optimistic - rather, it is a collection of different arts venues.

In the Eighties, the architect Terry Farrell was in charge of the first attempt, drawing up proposals that would have paid for improved arts facilities by commercialising the centre; in the Nineties, Rogers and the lottery seemed to offer a route, which would have allowed the South Bank to modernise without compromising. Both came to nothing.

After the failed attempts by two of Britain's leading architects and pounds 2m of lottery funding down the drain, is it time to call a halt to the idea that a "grand project" solution can be found for the South Bank; time to make the best of what's there, clean up and move on?

Apparently not, if you read the centre's competition brief for a new master planner. On the face of it this is a bold statement of intent, an announcement of another fresh start that involves possible demolition and replacement of the Hayward Gallery, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Purcell Room. Out with the expensive glass roof; in with costly new buildings.

But the South Bank Centre argues that its new plan is something of a third way - neither a grand project, nor papering over the cracks. Bold, but affordable.

When the Rogers plan collapsed last year, the culture secretary, Chris Smith, became involved and called for a back-to-basics approach at the South Bank. A new chief executive, the property developer Elliott Bernerd, was appointed to examine the issues and come up with a new way forward. His approach is underpinned by three basic tenets: what money is available, what money can be got and what can be built with it. The word "pragmatic" is one that comes readily to the lips of South Bank people these days. "It's a pragmatic approach: what buildings we need, what buildings we can afford. It is an exercise in measuring blocks of space, rather than a grand vision," says one. To further this aim, the centre hired Britain's leading process-oriented space-measurer, Dr Frank Duffy, to draw up a brief for the competition to choose the new master planner. Duffy, chairman of the planning and architecture firm DEGW, says the latest approach is "more about managing the process" than previous attempts.

"My idea of urban design is that it is rooted in politics and economics, as well as spatial relationships and architecture. This is not a very British idea." Duffy, who trained in America, says it was crucial to separate the job of the master planner (making sure the project is achievable) from that of the architects (responsible for the design of individual buildings). "The problem with Rogers' approach is that it became a mega- structure. This time, the project will be delivered stage by stage, while the show goes on, and each new stage will deliver a better service to the public," he argues.

And this gets to the heart of the South Bank's problem, third time round. Rogers' glass roof had its critics, but it also had a bold vision. Pragmatism and process may well be New Labour, but they are not very exciting. And the centre badly needs to generate some kind of buzz around the project.

There is also a sense that the moment may have passed. Rogers' project could have opened at the start of the next century, or coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Festival of Britain. Now it may be five years before anything new happens at the South Bank Centre - 2004 and the 53rd anniversary don't have quite the same resonance.

What excitement there is comes in the form of expanded film facilities on the site: the British Film Institute plans to sell its West End headquarters and move to the South Bank. The sale will raise enough money to build a new headquarters and a National Film & Television School, and enlarge the National Film Theatre and the Museum of the Moving Image. Excitement also comes in the "radical" idea of demolishing the still-controversial Sixties buildings at the heart of the centre - the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Purcell Room and the Hayward Gallery. But even this will not be straightforward.

The often impractical concrete buildings have their admirers, who oppose demolition. Both English Heritage and the Twentieth Century Society have argued that they should be listed to protect them against wholesale redevelopment. Twentieth Century Society's consultant director, Ken Powell, says: "We are very alarmed. The Arts Council, culture secretary, South Bank board - everyone seems to be ganging up on the Sixties buildings.

"It is almost undeniable that audiences like the Hayward, and most people accept that it and the other buildings could be retained and modernised. We want to emphasise that they are very good resources and have potential."

Powell admits that the buildings' external appearance does not help their cause, but cites the nearby National Theatre as an example of how cleaning and lighting a Sixties concrete building can improve it.

He argues that there is a need for "controlled change" in developing the South Bank, but accepts that cafes, restaurants and even a multiplex cinema are important for bringing in more people. Unlike others on the South Bank team, Frank Duffy is more cautious about the Sixties buildings, saying that he would "not exclude the possibility" of demolition. He compares them to the Pyramids - big on the outside but with not much space inside. They were built without any attention being paid to the artistic programme, he adds.

As an arts resource, the South Bank is probably unique in the number of different agencies it is saddled with pleasing, each with conflicting interests. The Arts Council, English Heritage, Lambeth Council, the Royal Fine Art Commission, the Arts Council Lottery Fund, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport all have a say in what goes on there. Couple this with a national tendency to question the value of spending vast sums of money on culture, an institutionalised resistance to change and two failed attempts, and the full nature of the problem facing the bid to modernise becomes apparent.

Duffy contends that the new project is exciting: "We are dealing with the biggest arts complex in the world; the next biggest is the Lincoln Center in New York, and that is half the size." Simon Smithson, who was project architect for the Rogers scheme, agrees that it is a "fantastic site and a fantastic project". His words hide huge disappointment and frustration about last year's failure, not to mention four years' work that came to nothing. "My advice to any architects is to believe that something can happen; doing nothing is not an option. Elliot [Bernerd] is an extremely persuasive person - if anyone can do it, he can."