Architecture: It's a jungle down here

Unloved and unlovely, London's South Bank at last has a new admirer with concrete plans for its future. By Nonie Niesewand

At a stormy meeting three weeks ago, staged by the Twentieth Century Society to save the Hayward gallery from being bulldozed, the American- born, London-based architect Rick Mather was taking copious notes. Four architects had been shortlisted to develop a master plan for London's South Bank Centre, yet Mather was the only one of them to join in the Saturday afternoon debate.

It helped him to understand the minefield that is the South Bank. Everyone got overheated about the Hayward, as images of its weatherbeaten grey face flashed up on the screen. By comparison, even the ever-present skateboarders outside were a scenic attraction. On Friday it was announced that Mather had won the commission to develop a master plan for the biggest arts complex in Europe, the South Bank.

With Mather, the Hayward has had a lucky escape. "I want to make the Hayward work," he said. "The pendulum has swung to the 1960s. Check it out with anyone under 30." There was a real chance that the gallery would be razed, along with the adjacent Purcell Room and the Queen Elizabeth Hall. It is still one of four options in the brief for the master planner to explore over the next five months.

Mather is full of praise for the director of the Hayward, another American, Susan Ferlager Brades: "So brave of her to get in there and start a dialogue." She refuses to be sentimental about the gallery's shortcomings, though there are many things about the building that she loves. The Hayward desperately needs better lorry access, disabled access, a ground level entrance, more storage space, cafes, shops, and corporate entertaining rooms to help fund the world-class exhibitions that Ferlager runs. Nearly double the amount of storage space is needed so that the gallery need not close for three months every year to install new exhibitions.

Adept at juggling exhibition space with important collections, Rick Mather is working on the Soane Picture Gallery in Dulwich, south-east London, as well as increasing the exhibition space for the Wallace collection. He is also celebrated as the architect of the new pounds 20m Neptune Hall at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, south-east London, but this is his first urban planning project.

The South Bank manages nearly 12 hectares of central London from Westminster to Bankside and Tower Bridge. It has public parks, a network of elevated walkways, and riverside walks. Only the National Theatre and the Festival Hall are listed, after Chris Smith turned down English Heritage grading recommendations for the Hayward, the Purcell Room and QE Hall. Together they attract over eight million visitors annually and the master planner is required to "maintain - and modernise - the international reputation of the cluster, as well as landscape it."

Since Richard Rogers's glass wave over the South Bank crashed when the Arts Council refused funding, ground control at the South Bank Centre has become secretive. They got burnt over that fiasco and are now refusing to release any of Mather's ideas. The real problem on the South Bank is that wherever you turn, you are surrounded by blank walls. Mather wants to make more exits and entrances at ground level. If he gets his way, the tangle of walkways that leave entry to the Hayward stranded in the air will come crashing down. The only suspended walkways will be decks used as terraces on buildings; they will never interrupt the flow around the ground level.

Freeing space among those awkward cement walkways and decks develops a pleasant square around the Festival Hall. The frontage on Waterloo Bridge that faces the National Theatre should have things that open out on to the space, Mather believes, with entrances to the Festival Hall square, the Purcell Room and the Queen Elizabeth Hall. He proposes that the Hayward could have its cafe and bookshop on that riverside pavement. "The area desperately needs mixed use, with complementary shops, rehearsals rooms, studios and galleries."

He managed to get a unanimous vote against stiff competition including the favourite, Rem Koolhaas, who electrified an audience of two thousand in the Purcell Hall when he gave the "Sounding the Century" lecture for the BBC on urban planning. Also shortlisted were Michael Hopkins and Jeremy Dixon, and Ed Jones, who survived the Royal Opera House row. So how did Rick Mather win the brief to reshape Europe's largest arts complex?

"As a master planner he is both daring and pragmatic, and has the flexibility to accommodate a range of design solutions," says SBC chairman Elliot Bernerd guardedly. Actually, Mather went before the 23 members of the presentation committee with a scale model of the site and three storyboards that detailed his design moves. Although they primarily concern pedestrian flow, they are in no way pedestrian.

Most controversially, he proposes building the new National Film Centre on the Jubilee Gardens site. This is going to make the locals angry if it happens - and Mather is already saying it was just an idea he floated past the panel - until you discover that his plan to put studios, shops and the new National Film Centre on the site actually increases the green belt by burying the buildings under a gently sloping grassy hill running from River Walk.

The BFI already has the money to move its headquarters there, together with the new Film Council set up by Government. They will be joined by the National Film Theatre and the forgotten Museum of the Moving Image, which are being flushed out from underneath Waterloo Bridge. "I haven't decided yet where the National Film Centre would be best placed. The Jubilee Gardens idea that I presented is only one option - it has advantages in that it could be done immediately. First I have to evaluate all four options outlined in the masterplan brief."

All four options concern the fate of the Hayard, with or without the Purcell Hall and Queen Elizabeth Hall, and the positioning of this new National Film Centre that the Government is so set on.

The brief for the masterplan asks for the creation of "a world-class centre for film". It also reminds us that "foyers, education, corporate entertainment and other facilities now demand much more space to ensure that direct experience of the arts continues to thrive in the face of growing competition from electronic package entertainment". Nothing explains why the Arts Council so rashly gave pounds 15m to the commercial Canadian concern IMAX to build a pounds 20m silver cylindrical cinema towering 31.6m above the Waterloo roundabout.

He plans to make Belvedere Road the main arterial route, turning it into something exciting with lots of studios and shops and a film school. "With activities going on all around it, the street will come alive," Rick Mather explains. At the moment it is a wasteland anchored with a windswept building and a forlorn garden. This is good news for the big player on site, Shell, who want to turn their Shell Centre into cinemas, shops and a gym with 160 residential apartments plus car-parking below the podium. They haven't got planning permission yet, but their plans will impact upon the work of the master planner.

With so many different agendas on site - commercial, cultural, conservationist and conceited - Mather was chosen as much for his attitude as his designs.

"He's strong enough to work with this gang," believes Rickie Burdett, head of urban planning at the London School of Economics and one of the selection panel. Mather's scheme, he says, is "disarmingly simple in its urban approach", which is code for do-able. As Mather says: "I want to provide a plan that will happen. Simple and understandable. There was no use getting bogged down in the past."

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