After years of delay, facelift for 'People's Place' strikes a chord

Renovation of the South Bank Centre has finally begun, writes Louise Jury
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The Independent Online

It was conceived in the post-war depression as part of the "tonic to the nation" proffered by the Festival of Britain.

And since the Royal Festival Hall opened its doors in 1951 as the centrepiece of what became the South Bank Centre arts complex, it has claimed its place at the heart of the nation's cultural life.

The giants of classical music have appeared there, from Karajan to Toscanini, Callas, Barenboim and Rattle. The greats of jazz and popular music, from Sinatra to Bowie and the stars of the Buena Vista Social Club, have performed to sell-out audiences.

But the acoustics were never the best because the design was never completed. And gradually, years of under-investment took their toll.

As long ago as 1988, the first scheme for a redevelopment, by Terry Farrell, fell victim to a property slump. There have been false starts and master plans aplenty since. Richard Rogers's famed wavy roof scheme was scuppered 10 years later when the Arts Council balked at the £167m price tag.

And in 2001, another £200m vision from the South Bank's then chief executive, Karsten Witt, was thrown into turmoil with his sudden resignation.

Tate Modern was conceived and developed during the long periods of delay. The British Museum, the Coliseum and the National Portrait Gallery all completed facelifts, thanks to the riches of the lottery and millennium fervour.

But yesterday, the agonising delays finally came to an end when work began on a £90m refurbishment of the Royal Festival Hall, now Grade I listed, and its immediate surroundings at the South Bank Centre. Decisions about the rest of the South Bank site have been put to one side to get things moving.

Few dispute that the credit for the breakthrough belonged to two men: Michael Lynch, a charming but tough Australian who once ran the Sydney Opera House and succeeded Mr Witt as chief executive, and Clive Hollick, the hard-headed businessman and Labour peer who was put in charge of the board when the last chairman, Elliot Bernerd, was forced to stand down through ill health.

As the centre is one of the national arts institutions for which senior appointments require ratification by Downing Street, Lord Hollick's appointment raised allegations of cronyism, which he dismissed as unfair given the rather troubled nature of the task in hand.

The critics were silenced yesterday when, less than two years after the new duo took office with a brief to bang heads together, cut through the planning bureaucracy and find the cash that had stymied previous plans, they appeared to have pulled it off.

Lord Hollick symbolically began the demolition of the boiler room (hauling away the first part of a heater), signalling the commencement of works to the sound of Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra performed by members of the London Philharmonia.

Furthermore, thanks to a £5m donation from Vivien Duffield, the Selfridges heiress, philanthropist and now co-chairperson of the centre's fund-raising committee, the project has £73m of the £90m needed.

What that will buy is the refurbishment of the Royal Festival Hall and improvements to the public areas of the centre itself. Decisions will still have to be made about the broader South Bank vision, including plans for the Jubilee Gardens and the Hungerford car park.

Asked why this proposal looked likely to succeed where others had failed, Dame Vivien said: "The Opera House, the Coliseum, the Tate: everything was being revitalised and people realised there was this beloved thing decaying in the middle of London. I think it's timing."

Politics came into it, too. The centre's relations with its local authority, Lambeth, have sometimes been strained. Dame Vivien said that having Lord Hollick in place had helped to smooth the wheels with a council that is Labour-controlled.

Both Ken Livingstone, the Mayor, and the Government had got behind the project, with messages of support from the Prime Minister and Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, in the brochure, Transforming the South Bank Centre, which has been designed to encourage further financial gifts.

Tony Blair was fulsome. "The Royal Festival Hall was created as 'The People's Place' for the 1951 Festival of Britain. It remains a place of national celebration for us all, keeping alive that spirit of the Festival of Britain," he wrote. "The renovation of this great building will ensure that future generations can experience top-quality performances of all kinds by the best artists from around the world."

Dame Vivien said the fact that both Mr Lynch and Lord Hollick were outsiders had also made a difference. "They came with no baggage. I think it helped that neither of them had had anything to do with any of the projects before."

Finally the plans themselves were "much more realistic". "There are no oceans of glass that could never have been cleaned," she observed with characteristic bluntness.

So now work begins on turning the ground-floor box office and dingy riverside cafe into shops and restaurants whose leases will eventually provide the South Bank with an income. With the bookshop and CD shop relocated to the ground floor below, a new cafe will open on to the raised walkway with views of the Thames.

A separate building alongside Hungerford Bridge will provide new offices, freeing 35 per cent extra space for public facilities inside the centre, including better toilets and disabled access.

And the most important part of the project is the £71m transformation of the Royal Festival Hall itself. It will close in the summer of next year for an 18-month refit, the first after more than half a century. The aim is to produce more comfortable seats and better acoustics.

The delay has not been without its benefits, Mr Lynch pointed out. They have now had a total of 12 years to get the acoustics right and are using the same experts the Barbican centre recently deployed to improve its hall.

Mr Lynch summed up the occasion as "momentous". "For London and the country, it's a really important achievement where we're now on track to deliver this major £90m transformation of the Royal Festival Hall and the surrounding areas."

The works are not the end of plans for the South Bank, with work still to be done on Jubilee Gardens and on deciding whether the British Film Institute's plans for a new state-of-the-art film centre can be accommodated too.

Even before yesterday's announcement, there had been some simple but effective improvements since the new management took control.

A wide staircase from the Waterloo station side has been built in place of a small winding one, a cafe has been opened in Festival Square on the same approach from Waterloo, and a new pavilion entrance has been added to the Hayward Gallery, which is also part of the South Bank Centre. "They were small things but they demonstrated we can deliver," Mr Lynch said.

He has admitted that the level of bureaucracy involved in working on a listed building, funded from central Government through the Department for Culture with planning control in the hands of a local authority, had been daunting.

"The level of bureaucracy has surprised me. Some of it is there to respect the issues involved in a much older city than cities in Australia or America, but I do think there are levels of control that make it difficult to take the next step forward," he said. "It has taken a period of time to understand at what point you have to put your foot on the accelerator and say, 'We must not blink.'"

The success of the redevelopment can only further increase the buzz that has been growing on the south side of the river. The opening of the London Eye and Tate Modern has increased the number of people using the riverside walk from 2.5 million to 10 million a year, three million of whom also visit the South Bank Centre.

Perhaps that is why Dame Vivien, Lord Hollick and Mr Lynch seem confident that the remaining £17m for the development can be found. Although the Heritage Lottery Fund has provided £19m, a "compelling" appeal for £5m more has now been lodged, Lord Hollick said.

And after Dame Vivien's success in fund-raising for the Royal Opera House redevelopment (even if her forthright approach ruffled lots of feathers), few can doubt that the fund-raising effort is in competent hands.

She said it had been a "logical and easy decision" to donate £5m herself. "The South Bank is a home for so many people and it's in dire need of being looked after with tender loving care. It's really in such a bad state," she said. "I think it's really the last great thing that needs to be done in London."

NIGHTS TO REMEMBER FROM 53 YEARS AT THE SOUTH BANK

3 MAY 1951

Thousands of cheering and flag-waving crowds line the streets to watch as King George VI inaugurates the Festival of Britain and opens the Royal Festival Hall. The design, both interior and exterior, is groundbreaking. Visitors are particularly impressed by the concert hall, with its boxes that seem to fly out of the wall. Some 8.5 million people visit the South Bank exhibitions over five months. The shows are intended to raise the nation's spirits after the war years while promoting the very best in British art, design and industry.

1 JUNE 1962

Frank Sinatra performs a midnight concert in front of fans including Princess Margaret as part of a tour in aid of children's charities.

He sings popular favourites including I've Got You Under My Skin and I Get a Kick Out of You to a rapturous reception.

MAY 2001

The Royal Festival Hall's 50th birthday celebration includes a gala concert, conducted by Valery Gergiev, a performance by the soprano Angela Gheorghiou, the premiere of the Antarctica symphony by Peter Maxwell Davies and a concert by the Australian singer Nick Cave.

1973

The soprano Maria Callas appears with the Italian tenor Giuseppe di Stefano in one of her last public appearance before her death, four years later, in Paris.

11 OCTOBER 2002

Sir Simon Rattle conducts Anton Bruckner's unfinished Ninth Symphony during his first appearance in Britain as head of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. "Rarely have London audiences heard brass choirs scream with such unchecked aggression," Rob Cowan, of The Independent , wrote of the concert.

20 FEBRUARY 2004

The Beach Boys founder and songwriter Brian Wilson performs his lost album Smile in a six-night residency. It is the first time the album, abandoned by Wilson in 1967 after his nervous breakdown, has been heard in its entirety by a British audience, and marks the final stage of his rehabilitation.

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