Architecture: Not so much a Sixties block, more a work of art: The Hayward Gallery should be glorified, not torn down like some unwanted relic, says Jonathan Glancey

Jonathan Glancey
Wednesday 24 February 1993 00:02

THE Hayward Gallery, London's most controversial art venue (at least from an architectural point of view), is in the news again. Two years ago the South Bank Board announced it wanted to tear down the whole Sixties concrete arts complex and replace it with a commercially driven development in which new art galleries would be huddled between shops and lettable office space.

The board now says that although it will demolish the Hayward Gallery, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Purcell Room, the commercial aspects of the earlier scheme will be played down. The South Bank will be tidied up, but the site will remain recognisable.

So the grand plan has given way to an ever-so-slightly less grand one. But why can't the board see that it would make better sense to preserve the Hayward as it is? At a time when precious little money is available to build and when the Hayward Gallery is becoming more and more popular, the South Bank Board's plans are wrong-headed.

The board has long failed to understand its own buildings (much less to like them), or how to cope with the unnecessarily grim spaces between them. If the arts complex were to be stitched together creatively, as opposed to being ripped apart and rebuilt in the latest architectural fashion, the South Bank and the Hayward in particular could be reborn cheaply, popularly and effectively.

In order to make it a place visitors want to spend time in, what the complex needs most is life outside the buildings as well as inside them. It has no need of new architectural fashions, smart boutiques and Eighties-style wine bars; instead it needs small galleries, cafes and spaces for performing arts clustered around the base of the Sixties buildings. It needs sculpture placed outside the buildings, art events in the open during the summer, proper lighting and a sense of delight rather than art-world earnestness.

None of this would be difficult or expensive to achieve while retaining the building. Yet the South Bank Board is fixed, like its Sixties predecessors, on the idea of the grand plan even when money is tight. London as a whole needs a grand plan to save it from future ruin, but the South Bank needs a gardener to plot its short to medium- term future, not a demolition gang. If it were revamped, it might finally become the arts complex - a place of high culture as well as a place to enjoy a 'nice day out' - that its original architects, if not those who commissioned them, wanted it to be.

Attitudes towards the architecture of the South Bank have been changing. The Hayward, the gallery the South Bank Board claims the public loves to hate (because its looks more like a lump of Rommel's Normandy defences than a house of art) has put on several exhibitions over the past two years that have won it a new generation of young admirers. They actually enjoy the buildings and revel in the difference between their challenging forms and the sleek, corporate London architecture of the Eighties. Should their fresh view of the South Bank be ignored by those who hate the way the Hayward looks?

The rehabilitation of the Hayward among young gallery-goers began with Richard Long's Walking in Circles exhibition, which opened in summer 1991, and has been reinforced by the current sculpture show, Gravity and Grace. Both exhibitions demonstrate how artists working closely with the demanding architecture of the Hayward can enhance the building and their work, while winning a new public.

Long's beguiling installation of stone, peat, painted and granite circles was a perfect match for the building. To Long, as to others fond of the Hayward, the gallery is more like a geological outcrop than a work of conventional architecture; he therefore colonised the building's concrete strata inside and out with his work. Visitors appeared to be climbing all over the Hayward on the trail of his mysterious circles.

The intimate relationship between Long's work and the gallery the Greater London Council built in 1968 thrilled even the most seasoned Hayward haters. Young visitors in particular - those under 25 have no fear of modern architecture - were delighted by the experience. Long had brought the Hayward to life in a way that its architects had hoped for when they designed it a quarter of a century ago.

'We always saw the South Bank as being a fun place to go,' says Ron Herron (who with fellow London County Council architects Warren Chalk and John Attenborough, designed the Hayward between 1960 and 1962). 'We wanted it to be a bit like the Mappin Terraces at London Zoo, with people and art crawling all over the buildings. We did drawings showing cafes and all sorts of activities.

'These would have been a foil to the architecture of the Hayward,' he adds, 'but they never happened because the old LCC, and the GLC after it, were prevented from mixing public and private enterprise in the way that is possible today. The South Bank was meant to be good for you, a place of adult education or a dose of aesthetic castor oil.'

If, in 1991, Richard Long showed how the Hayward could be fashionable, likeable, purposeful and dynamic, the new director of exhibitions, Henry Meyric- Hughes, has worked the same magic again this winter. Gravity and Grace, the current show of contemporary sculpture again proves that the Hayward is a thrilling place to visit and, despite the claims of its critics, an adaptable art venue. The exhibition has received very mixed reviews, but its design - as opposed to the individual works on show - is a small triumph for the gallery.

For about pounds 100,000, the architect Claudio Silvestrin has transformed the Hayward's concrete caverns into beautifully austere white rooms that lead visitors, subtly yet in a determined fashion, from one group of sculptures to the next. Best of all is the manner in which Silverstrin has worked his ethereal magic on the ramp that leads up from the principal ground-floor gallery to the rooms above. Here he has created a white shaft that draws visitors magnetically up to a spotlit Jasper Johns.

Yet, despite the success of Walking in Circles and Gravity and Grace, the South Bank Board is determined to rid itself of this symbol of the Sixties. Even while Long's exhibition was making the Hayward new friends, the Board announced plans (in June 1991) to demolish the gallery along with the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Purcell Room.

The original redevelopment, marrying art and commerce, planned by the Post-Modern architect Terry Farrell and financed by Stanhope Properties plc, was to have taken the South Bank into the brash new world of gaily painted split-pediment, American motifs and commercial 'concessions'. Here was a South Bank fit for a world where commerce would hold sway over art, a Post- Modern vision announced at the very time that Post-Modernism, in architecture at least, had reached an intellectual dead end.

The plan was also unveiled just as Britain's recession had begun to bite. Not only did this make the grand Post-Modern plan little more than a pipe-dream, but, ironically, it looked as if the recession might have saved the Hayward. But, now the plan, albeit modified, is to be implemented.

Thankfully, the South Bank Board has at least faced up to the tide of critical opinion that seems, after a decade of flashy, sub-American wallpaper architecture - to have laid Post-Modernism low. The South Bank Board says that although it will put Terry Farrell's plan into action, it will not be commissioning Post-Modern buildings. The Hayward replacement will be found through an international competition.

But, although a future building might be very fine, the Hayward still has a role to play. And if the South Bank Board is really set on a new gallery, why not turn the Hayward into a full-time sculpture gallery and hand over its secondary spaces to young artists? New gallery space can be built close by.

Until Britain makes a full economic recovery and until the South Bank Board decides what it really wants the South Bank arts centre to be, the Hayward needs more contributions from the likes of Richard Long and Claudio Silvestrin and less from developers, demolishers and dreamers of hugely expensive grand plans. The South Bank Board must not reject one architectural fashion in favour of another and then discover it has yet to define its role or work out the tricky modern relationship between art and commerce.

Gravity and Grace is at the Hayward Gallery, South Bank Centre, London SE1 until 14 March.

(Photograph omitted)

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