Design: On the crest of a new wave

A funding crisis has sunk the Wave, Lord Rogers' design for the South Bank Centre. Nonie Niesewand looks at its likely replacement by up-and-coming talent Allies and Morrison
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The Independent Online
NEXT WEEK, there will be a very special end for the Wave, Lord Rogers' proposed glass canopy for the South Bank Arts Centre. After the Arts Council's refusal to contribute to the pounds 135m funding for the scheme, which included a spectacular refurbishment of the Festival Hall, the people involved in it decided to give the plan a decent burial.

The team of spin doctors, fundraisers, architects and engineers will drape the Perspex architectural model that has stood in the foyer of the Festival Hall in black. Then they will march across Waterloo bridge carrying flowers and black candles and dump it in the Thames.

But what will be built instead? When Elliott Bernerd, the pragmatic property developer now chairing the South Bank Centre's board, puts a rescue package before Culture Minister Chris Smith on 16 May they will look closely at the masterplan from the highly promising duo Allies and Morrison, who are already refurbishing the Royal Festival Hall. Their scheme was runner-up to Lord Rogers' Wave when it won the international architectural competition, staged in 1994 by South Bank director Nicholas Snowman, to make the arts complex a worthy cultural landmark once more.

Perusing the ideas generated by the original architectural competition for ideas seems a good place to start.

Although Snowman quit on Monday, he was still brazening out my suggestion that he should have resigned earlier. "Balls," he said. He won't make his resignation a point of honour. "Why should I? Do I resign just because the Arts Council can't fund a project they unanimously approved? Just because they didn't have the money which would allow them to allocate pounds 75m to the South Bank?"

Whoever runs the South Bank, it is clear that the great cultural landmark is falling into disrepair. Stalactites pinpoint the grey concrete and urine stains the splashback at pavement height. Skateboarders swoop over the dark, draughty space underneath the buildings. The beauty of Lord Rogers' masterplan was that he linked the Fifties' Festival Hall with the 1964 GLC-built bunker that houses the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Hayward Gallery, freeing more exhibition space and introducing more shops to generate more income and help free the centre from depending on public subsidy.

Like Rogers, Allies and Morrison have thought laterally to connect the Hayward with the Queen Elizabeth Hall along the river route for the flow of people, making the main entrance to both buildings face each other in the side street. Instead of the wave, they have designed an armature in glass and steel, very subdued and laid back to be subordinate to all of the buildings. This armature helps create the square that follows the site line to Waterloo, from where the visitors pour in.

Their quietly confident groundplan offers a sensible use of the space between the Festival Hall and the Queen Elizabeth Hall, linked with an enclosed, shared foyer at ground level. The grotty walkways would be replaced with a single, uninterrupted pedestrian podium or piano nobile, fully occupying the space between buildings. At this level, a great open-air vestibule, overlooked by all the existing buildings, would be the direct link between the two. At ground level, frontages of both buildings face the sides with a new square between them. The riverfront is a terraced cafe, a place to go to not just walk by.

Allies and Morrison (alias Bob Allies and Graham Morrison), both in their early forties, have been refurbishing the interiors of the Festival Hall in a restrained way. Their conservation plan was based on thorough research, which revealed that one of the reasons the building's fabric is faring so badly is that it was originally only intended to open for evening concerts. In fact, it is open all day, with a consequent increase in wear and tear. But without Lord Rogers' masterplan for the whole site, Morrison believes that revamping the interiors by Peter Moro is comparable to "polishing up your shoes without taking your suit to the dry cleaner".

Allies and Morrison are very careful about materials and details. Their pumping station at Stratford is made out of aluminium; their British Embassy in Dublin of granite and Portland stone with slate and metalwork. One material grows into another and then another. "We don't do buildings that just get parked. Unlike [Frank Gehry's] Guggenheim at Bilbao... in titanium which, I think, represents the new international style that is transferable across boundaries. The equivalent of internet architecture. Our architecture is very specific to the context," says Morrison. That is why they are sensitive to the South Bank predicament. And it also explains why critics think of them as quintessentially English - mannerly and thoughtful, strong on harmony, wary of flash.

However, sobriety is not their style either. The Festival Hall - with its People's Palace cafe, and its recent starring role as the rallying place for Labour's election-night crowds - is back in fashion. As far as Allies and Morrison are concerned it was never out. It now seems likely that they can stamp their own mark on this classic.