A duel of lady versus knight

Peter Popham reports on an architectural row
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SIR Richard Rogers, our most prominent architectural knight, has been challenged. Although other architects "follow him like sheep", it seems he should not be ranked with the country's finest. His ambitious plan for a glass canopy over London's South Bank Arts Centre will, it appears, "interfere" with the Royal Festival Hall. His hopes of bringing "fun" to the area are an affront to the dignity of fine public buildings.

The source of these brisk views has her base in a time capsule of the 1830s - the Sir John Soane Museum in London, where she is curator. And Margaret Richardson, though president of the Twentieth Century Society, seems to have emerged from a time capsule of her own, or at least drifted down from the sky on Mary Poppins's umbrella.

Her charcoal suit reaches to the calf, her neck is strung with pearls, her straight hair hangs girlishly round her cheeks. One is not surprised to learn that she took a degree in Latin, studied at Courtaulds, then buried herself in the curating of architectural drawing at the Royal Institute of British Architects.

But now she has shaken the dust of academe off her buttoned boots, and emerged to engage Sir Richard in verbal combat.

The Twentieth Century Society - membership about 1,500 and rising - began life in 1979 with the aim of protecting British architecture and design since 1914. It appears to have influence, claiming much of the credit for the recent Government decision to recommend modern buildings such as Centre Point for listing.

The society's relationship with living architects, however, is troubled. Heroes of the recent past such as Giles Gilbert Scott and Erno Goldfinger are extolled, but those in full career spell trouble: they can, after all, threaten existing modern architecture.

Little wonder, then, that Mrs Richardson - younger sister of the science fiction writer J G Ballard - has taken up the cudgels against Rogers. The designer of the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Lloyd's Building in the City of London, has for years been developing plans to transform the capital's riverside - including the monumental post-war group of theatres, galleries and halls that make up the South Bank.

Rogers wants to throw a great glass canopy over the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Hayward Gallery, raising the temperature inside by three degrees to give the place all year round the ambience of Bordeaux. The aim of this "new Crystal Palace" is to restore glamour and thereby double the number of visitors. Rogers was awarded nearly pounds 1m to develop the scheme, budgeted at pounds 60m, by Lord Gowrie, chairman of the Arts Council (of which, coincidentally, Rogers is vice-chairman) last March.

What Mrs Richardson and her society dislike most is the effect on the Royal Festival Hall next door. "We see this, a Grade 1 listed building, as a very fine example of modern architecture in this country, and we don't like the silhouette being interfered with. A lot has been made of the fact that it's transparent - but I'm not sure that glass reads as transparent when it covers buildings like this. The Festival Hall was conceived as a free-standing monument: it could be seen from all sides."

Rogers also envisages commercial development, and what he calls "a very pleasant indoor/outdoor atmosphere, a bit like sitting in the cafes of Paris". At this Mrs Richardson purses her lips. "Do people really want the South Bank to become a fun palace? Shouldn't we try to preserve some of its dignity?"

Neither Richard Rogers nor any of his staff were available for comment, but Paul Finch, editor of the Architects' Journal, indicated that the Twentieth Century Society is going to have a fight on its hands if it hopes to kill the project. "They've got a perfect right to comment - but they're self-selecting, unaccountable, and they've got no statutory role; and in this case they're barking up the wrong tree.

"The reason Rogers won the competition is that his was the only entry that addressed the fundamental point of the brief: how to double the number of visitors to the site by the millennium. In the Pompidou Centre he designed one of the most successful buildings of modern times, so he's not a bad choice. At night the South Bank would become an amazing London landmark."

The Twentieth Century Society may claim credit for protecting important modern buildings, but their activities carry contradictions, Finch suggests. "If the Society had existed back then, the Festival Hall would never have got built, because it involved demolishing the Old Lion Brewery, a fine old landmark building. The Festival Hall itself has changed drastically since it was built, and the whole site has been in flux since the Festival of Britain in 1951. The idea that now is the moment to freeze it is all wrong."

Mrs Richardson denies that "freezing" is her intention. "We know the Hayward must be changed," she says. "It needs more storage space and a cafe. We don't object to alterations. But the interest we take in it is that it is the major arts centre in London. That line of theatres and concert halls is a bit sacrosanct."

How does she feel about taking on arguably one of the greatest British architects of the century? "Richard Rogers has some wonderful ideas; he's a very nice person and very good at getting publicity. He's one of the leading architects at the moment. But I really don't think he should be singled out as one of the greatest living British architects."

Mrs Richardson does notmince her words. Her first tilt at Rogers, published in the architectural press, was to complain: "There is no discussion about the big schemes of today - architects just follow Rogers and other famous architects like sheep." It's going to be an interesting fight.