For years, the poor old South Bank - the capital's culture bunker - has been the butt of sour jokes. Some, but only a few of us, like it more or less as it is, but those who run it (the South Bank Board) and most of those who visit the place for art, music and a day or evening out, find the stretch of buildings, walkways and promenades between the southern ends of Westminster and Waterloo bridges ugly and dispiriting.
This is the land of weather-stained concrete, of rain-swept walkways, urine-soaked stairs, ugly undercrofts and, most of all, of brutal Sixties architecture.
The timing of the competition is fortuitous. If the South Bank had been redeveloped along the lines proposed in the late Eighties, it might well have been turned into a Thatcher-era shopping mall, with a bit of culture tagged on. Serious plans were afoot to demolish the Hayward Gallery (a friendly dragon of a building that has made many young friends over the past five years; its virtues, despite its flaws, have also been rediscovered by artists and curators). Even more seriously, the South Bank would have been littered with yuppie-friendly shops and redundant office space. The designs were to have been realised in an overwrought Post- Modern style, already unfashionable at the time and fated to be consigned to the more embarrassing pages of architectural histories.
Recession has made for common sense. The competition calls for 'the enlargement of the Hayward Gallery, the internal and external refurbishment of the Royal Festival Hall and the redesign of the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room, to provide many of the facilities currently lacking on the site. The scheme would also include plans for a new 450-seat performance venue.'
Curiously, the competition announcement makes no mention of the Museum of Modern Art, a child of the Tate Gallery, that may yet muscle its way on to the South Bank. Equally, the Museum of Modern Art might be housed in Bankside power station, further east. Perhaps this omission is because both schemes are seeking funds from the same sources: the National Lottery and the Millennium Fund. Both will be expensive and it is possible that one might preclude the other.
However, as Amanda Baillieu explained on this page last week, it will be difficult for architects entering the South Bank competition to come up with an effective 'master plan' if they are unsure whether to make provision for the Museum of Modern Art.
Nevertheless, an ideas competition does seem essential. But, as an exhibition opening today at the Architecture Foundation shows - 'Building the South Bank: architectural projects, 1753-1993' - the history of the place has never been anything but messy and unresolved.
If anything, it proves that London has never really come to terms with the Thames. This is partly because the river, unlike the Seine, is wide and tidal and its north and south banks remain quite distant from one another. Londoners still like to joke that they need passports to cross from one side to the other.
In the 18th century, the site of the Royal Festival Hall and its attendant culture bunkers was an unlovely weave of wharves, timber yards, marsh and wasteland. It was only with the construction of the original Waterloo Bridge (1811-17) that major roads were built here. The Lion Brewery arrived in 1826 (the exact site of which is now the Royal Festival Hall; one of its lovely Coade stone lions snoozes today on a granite plinth on the south-east tip of Westminster Bridge) and Waterloo Station in 1848.
But grand plans to make sense of the jumbled South Bank began in earnest a century later. The Royal Academy, Lord Abercrombie and the London County Council - one scheme by Charles Holden, one by Leslie Martin - all published over- scaled proposals between 1942 and 1953. Without exception they were dry and lifeless, based on the construction of massive office blocks to house more than 10,000 civil servants, and palaces of culture. Stalin would have approved them all. Luckily, none was realised.
The best thing to happen to the site was the Festival of Britain in 1951, but this was a six-month event and not a permanent solution. Even so, Ralph Tubb's wonderful Dome of Discovery (365ft in diameter) and Powell and Moya's 296ft high Skylon remain in the imagination, 40 years after their dismantling.
The one building to survive that era was the Royal Festival Hall, the first major public building in Britain to be designed in a self-consciously Modern style (an ingenious, if self-effacing, building remodelled in 1962 and toyed with internally ever since, it is still a joy and remains very popular). Its Brutalist siblings (love them or hate them, but the Hayward is special) were built by the Greater London Council between 1964 and 1968, while the National Theatre, designed by Sir Denys Lasdun, finally found a home, east of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's Waterloo Bridge, in 1976.
Since then 'improvements' have been piecemeal. There is some toytown housing to the east of the site (Coin Street), the Oxo Tower - an odd survival - is being restored and the National Theatre is being 'brought up to date', very gently, by the architects Stanton Williams.
The South Bank's competition is a welcome sign that, after all these years, the area will be pulled together and given a new lease of life without recourse to office blocks, shops and burger bars. It is only a shame that the South Bank Centre continues to use that horrid word 'masterplan' in its briefing to architects. It calls to mind the grim and overbearing approach of the architects of the Forties and Fifties and, even worse, the over-ambitious commercial razzmatazz of the Thatcher years. It has taken two centuries for the South Bank to get itself into such a fascinating muddle. A wave of the architect's T-square will not set it right overnight.
Building the South Bank, The Architecture Foundation, until 20 March, Tuesdays-Fridays noon to 6pm (Thursdays 8pm), weekends 2-6pm, 30 Bury Street, London SW1, 071-839 9389.
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