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£100 million revamp of Southbank Centre hailed as 'biggest step forward since the ‘60s'

  • @MrNickClark

London’s Southbank Centre is to bring its Festival Wing out of the 1960s and into the 21st century with a £100m overhaul that marks the “final piece in the jigsaw” in the transformation of the cultural venue.

Artistic director Jude Kelly and chief executive Alan Bishop today unveiled the tentative plans to redesign the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Purcell Room and the Hayward Gallery, which he described as the centre’s “biggest step forward since the ‘60s”.

The designs include a string of proposals including a “floating” glass pavilion, two more roof gardens, spaces for riverside arts and service roads turned into pedestrianised areas.

Mr Bishop called it a “transformative project” for the cultural venue which hosts hundreds of events from art exhibitions to concerts, theatrical performances and installations.

The move comes after the refurbishment of the Royal Festival Hall was completed in 2007, which brought many more visitors flocking not just to the cultural events, but the bars, restaurants and outside spaces.

Currently 25 million people pass through the riverside venue a year and while the management does not expect a huge rise in visitors, it may change where they go.

Mr Bishop said: “We want to make use of the whole site, there is too much concentration around the Festival Hall; we’ll be able to spread it over the whole site.”

On the other side of the Festival Wing, the National Theatre is also undergoing a £70m revamp of its buildings. Mr Bishop said: “We see ourselves in some ways as the final piece in the jigsaw for the entire area,” adding that it was a “no brainer” after the success of the Festival Hall.

Further down the river, plans to redevelop the Shell Centre were unveiled in December, while several years earlier propsals were drawn up to plan a development on the derelict Doon Street site adjacent to the National Theatre, where the Ballet Rambert is moving. Elizabeth House is also being developed next to Waterloo.

“It’s important for us, but also important for the wider area, there’s an extraordinary array of developments around here,” Mr Bishop said.

The Festival Wing project will reshape the existing site, including building a new central foyer connecting the three venues.

The glass pavilion will sit above, designed for orchestra rehearsals, which audiences will be able to see. “We wanted a place where new classical music could develop and find a new voice in the 21st century, as well as a space to work in,” Ms Kelly said.

Alongside Waterloo Bridge a new glass building will be put up to provide educational programmes and house the Saison Poetry Library.

The project will be completed in late 2016 at the earliest, Mr Bishop said, adding: “We’ve been moving towards this day for a long time,” he said.

Ms Kelly said: “If we get this right, we’re not just doing it for now but we have to be thinking what will this site mean in 25 years” adding it “could be a space of profound change, culturally”.

The Southbank Centre was built  1951 as not only a “tonic for the nation” but “deep social transformation; recognising that after a barbarous war that had to be some way of culture playing a significant role in what peace looked like,” Ms Kelly said. The Hayward Gallery was built in 1968.

The management also pointed out it would be a chance to refurbish the Festival Wing “and address current urgent problems including poor access, worn out services and the need to upgrade stages, galleries and back stage areas”.

There are 68 buildings across the 21 acre site had a strong commitment to what society would look like in the future, Ms Kelly said.

The Arts Council has approved first stage funding of £20m, and Mr Bishop said private backers who have been sounded out have shown willingness to back the project.  “We have high hopes, even in these difficult times that because of the vision of the project it will be supported.”

If all goes to schedule building will start in 2014, with it taking two to three years. So far no objections have been raised in the planning stage.

Ed Vaizey MP, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, said: "This ambitious regeneration project will be the final step in the triumphant transformation of London's South Bank."