Southbank Centre is a complex of artistic venues located in London, UK, on the South Bank of the River Thames between County Hall and Waterloo Bridge. It comprises three main buildings; the Royal Festival Hall, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and The Hayward art gallery, and is Europe’s largest centre for the arts. Prior to a rebranding in early 2007, it was known as the South Bank Centre.
Southbank Centre’s 21 acre estate, from Waterloo Bridge to the London Eye.
Nearby, although not part of Southbank Centre, are the National Theatre and BFI Southbank. This is one of the most popular public spaces in London, part of a pedestrian-friendly stretch of the river extending eastwards from Westminster Bridge, past The London Eye, Southbank Centre, Tate Modern and the new Shakespeare’s Globe to the east.
In all, Southbank Centre manages a 21 acre (85,000 m²) site from County Hall to Waterloo Bridge, and includes the Purcell Room, Saison Poetry Library, Jubilee Gardens and The Queen’s Walk, attracting more than three million visitors annually. Nearly a thousand paid performances of music, dance and literature are staged at Southbank Centre each year, as well as over 300 free foyer events and an education programme, in and around the performing arts venues. In addition, three to six major art exhibitions per annum are presented at The Hayward, whilst National Touring Exhibitions reach over 100 venues across the UK.
In February 2002, Lord Hollick was appointed Chairman of the South Bank Board Limited, the parent company of Southbank Centre. In May of the same year, Michael Lynch, former Chief Executive of Sydney Opera House, was appointed Chief Executive. September 2005 saw the arrival of Jude Kelly as Southbank Centre’s Artistic Director.
The closest Underground stations are Waterloo and Embankment.
History and development
Visitors to the Festival of Britain in front of the Dome of Discovery.
The history of Southbank Centre can be traced back to the Festival of Britain, held in 1951. In what was described as “a tonic for the nation” by Herbert Morrison, the Labour Party government minister responsible for the event, the Festival of Britain aimed to demonstrate Britain’s recovery from World War II by showcasing the best in science, technology, arts and industrial design. The Festival of Britain ran from May to September 1951, and by June the following year most of it had been dismantled, following the victory of Winston Churchill and the Conservative Party in the general election of 1951. The Royal Festival Hall is the only surviving building from the Festival of Britain.
In the period 1962-65, the Royal Festival Hall was extended towards the river and Waterloo Station and refurbished. The London County Council (later, Greater Londo Council) took the decision, in 1955, to build a second concert hall and an art gallery on the eastern part of the South Bank site previously occupied by a lead works and shot tower (and which had been earmarked as a site for the National Theatre. It was another 12 years before the Queen Elizabeth Hall and linked the Purcell Room opened to the public. Collectively, the venues were to be known as South Bank Concert Halls. In 1968, The Hayward opened, albeit under direct management of the Arts Council. The new buildings had their main entrances at first floor level and were linked by an extensive elevated concrete walkway system to the Royal Festival Hall and the Shell Centre. This vertical separation of pedestrian and vehicle traffic proved unpopular due to the difficulty pedestrians had in navigating through the complex, and the dark and under-used spaces at ground level below the walkways.
Following abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986, the South Bank Board was formed to take over operational control of the concert halls. The following year, the South Bank Board took over the administrative running of The Hayward from the Arts Council. Collectively, the arts venues, along with Jubilee Gardens, were to be known as Southbank Centre, becoming responsible to Arts Council England as an independent arts institution (after transitional arrangements).
The walkway on the east side of the RFH, running along Belvedere Road towards the Shell Centre was removed circa 1990, to restore ground level circulation. Southbank Centre’s Waterloo Site (the late 1960s buildings) has been the subject of various plans for modification or reconstruction, in particular a scheme developed by Richard Rogers in the mid 1990s which would have involved a great glass roof over the existing three buildings. This did not proceed due to the high degree of National Lottery funding required and likely high cost.
In 2000, a masterplan for the entire Southbank Centre site was produced by Rick Mather Architects. The main features of the masterplan are: a new administration building for members of staff, now completed and occupied; the removal of access for delivery vehicles to the south of the Hungerford Bridge approach viaduct and east of The Hayward (by Waterloo Bridge); the creation of three new public spaces around the RFH (Festival Riverside, Southbank Centre Square and Festival Terrace); modification of the Queen Elizabeth Hall undercroft and the lower two levels of The Hayward to provide a frontage onto Southbank Centre Square; and a new British Film Institute building partly underground on the Hungerford Car Park site. The developments at Southbank Centre since 2000 have been undertaken in line with the Rick Mather Masterplan.
Outdoor events at The Overture, a free three-day festival to mark the reopening of Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, attended by over a quarter of a million people.
The Southbank Centre implemented a major development and refurbishment plan in the period 2004-7. A slim new glass-fronted building, providing office space for Southbank Centre staff, as well as a range of new shops and restaurants, was inserted between the RFH and the approach viaduct to Hungerford Bridge. This new building was designed by Allies and Morrison, with detail design by Building Design Partnership who were commissioned by the contractor, Taylor Woodrow, and was completed in 2006.
Also begun at this time and completed in July 2005 was the insertion of new retail units to the low level Thames elevation of the Royal Festival Hall, using the space below the walkway added in the mid 1960s. This development was designed by Allies and Morrison and the main contractors were ISG InteriorExterior. Gross Max were the landscape architects for the new public spaces surrounding the Royal Festival Hall.
The refurbishment of the RFH took place in 2005-7. In the RFH auditorium, the natural acoustic has been enhanced to meet classical music requirements, while being flexible enough to suit the demands of amplified sound. Other features of the refurbished RFH include reconfigured seating and upgrades to production facilities and public areas, particularly a range of new bar areas, the removal of most retail outlets from foyer spaces and newly refurbished lifts and WCs.
The Southbank Centre Car Park, Belvedere Road site lies south of the Royal Festival Hall and the Hungerford Bridge approach viaduct. The site was designated as Metropolitan Open Land by London Borough of Lambeth Council in 2006.
One of the more notable temporary art works to appear at Southbank Centre was Polaris by David Machh, exhibited in 1983 on the now-removed walkway outside the eastern facade of the Royal Festival Hall, near The Hayward. This consisted of 6,000 car tyres arranged as a lifesize replica of a Polaris nuclear submarine, a controversial political subject of the time. An arsonist tried to burn it down, suffering fatal burns in the process.