Arts 2000: is this another piece in the puzzle?

The Shell building may become an all-singing, all-dancing centre for the performing arts. Michael Church on the latest Lottery-funded plan to transform the cultural map of Britain
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The Independent Culture
After the Bankside Tate, the Oxo Tower. Next, perhaps, a Lloyd Webber art gallery in the revitalised Jubilee Gardens. Thereafter, with luck, a ferris wheel, a "Globerama", and a cable car. One by one, the elements in Richard Rogers' "string of pearls" along the river are coming into focus.

But every celebratory map drawn to illustrate this leaves an unlabelled hole next to the projected Crystal Palace at its centre. And indeed, as one approaches the Festival Hall via Belvedere Road, the eye slides over the severely functional edifice on the left. The plain facade and serried windows of Shell's poetically named Downstream Building announce "Big business. Boredom" as surely as if the words were hung out on a banner.

Today, however, this too will be claimed as a pearl on the string. Shell has put the building up for sale: a new consortium is proposing to turn it into a centre for the performing arts, on a grander scale than anywhere else in the world. If the bid succeeds - and the expected occupants move in - musicians, dancers, singers, actors and film-makers will be trained in tandem. And the South Bank precinct will at last be a living community, rather than a series of oases in the soot-streaked desert we know and loathe.

In a sense this is simply the natural conclusion of a recent trend. It is now felt that musicians and dancers, for example, should train together: music may be incidental to spoken theatre, but it's an integral part of dance. Several schemes for amalgamation are currently under discussion among the arts academies. But this new one - fronted by Lord Young of Graffham, former cabinet minister and current chairman of the London Philharmonic - looks like delivering the goods.

As things stand, the new centre - which could be operational before the Millennium - looks like including the British Film Institute, the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, Trinity College of Music, the National Film and Television School, the London School of Contemporary Dance, the National Opera Studio, and a host of smaller musical organisations. It is likely to be the headquarters of some - maybe all - of the big London orchestras. It might even include the Arts Council, if there's anything left of that beleaguered body by then. It should house a unique agglomeration of libraries.

The catalyst for this consortium is Gavin Henderson, the trumpet-playing principal of Trinity, and it was his college's problems that prompted the entire movement. Trinity has been bursting at the seams for years, and has to hire outside halls and churches for its performance work. At one point - under scrutiny from Lord Gowrie's committee on the conservatories - it seemed doomed to a merger. It then considered a move to Bristol, but rejected that because the local musical culture wasn't vigorous enough to support it.

"We were, in effect, homeless," says Henderson. "We decided to rethink from scratch, without the baggage of the past, what the real mission of a college in the 21st century might be." They looked east to Paris, where musicians and dancers were training side by side in the Cite de la Musique. And west to New York, where the Juilliard School embraced music, dance, and multi-media studies on the same campus as the Lincoln Center's concert halls.

"These," says Henderson, "were our basic models. We felt that film, video and electronic media should be fundamental to everything we did. We also felt we had to be near the musical action. To find a building just across the road from the Festival Hall up for sale seemed too good to be true." The alliance with Lord Young was formed, quite by chance, when Young met Henderson (who chairs the Arts Council's music panel) to discuss his orchestra's need for a South Bank headquarters.

Looking more closely at the Shell building, their engineers concluded that some of the floors might be knocked out to give headroom for dance. They also registered the surprising fact that Shell's neighbouring "upstream" building housed not only a huge sports hall, but a theatre designed by Cecil Beaton, with a mural by Osbert Lancaster in its foyer. Might they get access to these?

Other pieces of the jigsaw are now tumbling into place. The BFI has long wanted to concentrate its activities on the South Bank, alongside the Museum of the Moving Image, the National Film Theatre, and the projected Imax screen - or some more state-of-the-art contraption - in the Bullring under Waterloo roundabout. Its director, Wilf Stevenson, says he would gladly move his headquarters from Tottenham Court Road to a billet in Shell: oddly enough, he tried to rent space in this very building two years ago. The National Film and Television School has recently bought Ealing Studios, but it too wants a piece of the South Bank action.

According to its policy chairman, Luke Rittner, LAMDA is, like Trinity, bursting at the seams, and has recently been eyeing the newly vacant West London Hospital. "But we think the Shell scheme is fascinating," he says. Graham Marchant, who runs the London School of Contemporary Dance, thinks the "critical mass" of Shell might attract more grant money than the school's isolated status does at present. Whereas 15 years ago most of his students came on local authority grants, now only three out of 60 do.

Philip Jones - Henderson's predecessor at Trinity, and a rather more celebrated trumpeter - is now chairman of the Henry Wood Hostel for music students, and thinks this too might move into the Shell building. And he's hot on the scheme's educational advantages. "Student musicians suffer from tunnel vision. They've no idea how to walk on stage, or how to look as though they're happy on it: such things are beneath their notice. If they study alongside people who have to think about this all day long, it may rub off." The National Opera Studio, which at present trains its students in holes and corners at Morley College, would also love to come aboard.

One of the centre's most ardent supporters is organ virtuoso David Titterington, currently professor at the Royal Academy. To set up a national centre for organ performance under the Shell aegis would, he says, be a step towards freeing the instrument from the deadening clutches of the church. The organ, he says, should be treated as a concert instrument like any other. "If this doesn't happen soon, it will become a musical dinosaur."

At the British Music Information Centre, in its 18th-century house just off Oxford Street, spirits are rising hugely at the prospect of Shell. The BMIC's concerts - always of 20th-century British music - are at present held in a 40-seat drawing room. A larger space, and correspondingly increased visibility, would give this group a well-deserved boost.

Until two days ago, the Shell venture was known as the Institute for Performing Arts. "We decided against this at the last minute," says Lord Young, "because we didn't want anyone to think that it meant any loss of sovereignty. This is absolutely not a takeover by Trinity. If there's one thing harder to carry out than a merger in the commercial world, it's a merger in the world of the arts." Well, as the man who recently failed to merge London's two Philharmonics, he should know.

Today at the Archduke Wine Bar the group will announce its application for pounds 90,000 of Lottery cash to finance an engineering feasibility study, which it hopes to finish by Christmas. Meanwhile, says Henderson, "we shall see who else we can tickle out of the woodwork. This sort of thing is in the true spirit of the Millennium. Propping up lovely old buildings is all very well, but this is a project about people, and about the future."