For a long time the South Bank has been seen as the gateway to the cheap side of the Thames. Perhaps some north Londoners still view things this way. This makes me recall with affection Katherine Shonfields's question: “Why the hell does everything have to look north?”, delivered with characteristic sarcasm and spirit at the 1995 symposium The Royal Festival Hall: Past Future and Present.
Shonfields’s provocation was made in opposition to Richard Rogers’s Crystal Palace proposal, which was accepted at the time that would have encased the South Bank Centre with a wavy glass roof. The project was one of the jewels in the crown of cultural projects planned to coincide with the millennium. But locals were not thrilled: loosely recalling Fry Drew & Partners’ Thames-side Restaurant, the project’s sinuous roof waved its way beneath the Hungerford Bridge and many saw the proposal as little more than gesture to the passing tides. It would have done nothing for linkages north or south. It simply smoothed over the concrete assemblages of the National Theatre, Hayward Gallery and Royal Festival Hall, and many felt they should remain fully expressed – asymmetrical, additive and conglomerate.
Somewhat promisingly, the subject of that symposium – the Royal Festival Hall – was and still is an exception to this fixation on the north. At the time of its inception, the RFH was a powerful and self-centred building that managed to successfully address all four points of the compass with split level side entrances that were meant to take priority over those on Belvedere Road or the Riverside. While these intentions were compromised during the 1964 extensions and adaptations of the building, they have now been reinstated through Allies and Morrison's excellent and ongoing redevelopment works.
But what else does the South Bank need? Do we need to develop Jubilee Gardens (next to the London Eye), for example? The ill-fated plot has remained empty since the Festival of Britain in 1951, when it had its only real – albeit temporary – civic identity. The neighbouring Shell Centre now dominates this area, and certainly forms a barrier between south London and the river. Some seem determined to reinforce this division with an accumulation of view-grabbing riverside developments.
Building high of course is no bad thing in itself, and a southerly cluster of tall buildings may of course serve the area well—perhaps at Elephant and Castle or further afield. But such developments should not be built simply as slaves to the picturesque: to improve the composition of the South Bank for those that look on from the north (from the Savoy for example). Instead such a cluster should be considered from the ground up; built as a destination beacon and drawing people to its surrounds.
Whether or not the South Bank is more or less popular than it was in 1951, when over eight and half million people visited it in just five months, it remains more than a place of transition or a gateway between better and worse. Michael Frayn's enduring account of the birth of the South Bank is a powerful image:
For two or three evenings the police had to close the streets round the Embankment to traffic, as the crowds poured down to gaze at the flood lit dream-world breathing music on the other side of the river. 'People making for the South Bank began to smile as they came close to it', reported the London correspondent of the Manchester Guardian. 'On bright sunny days it seems likely that a trip across the Thames to the South Bank will be as invigorating as a trip across the Channel.' The crowds came in, and wandered round in a state of somnambulism, forming queues with such abstracted readiness that the attendants found difficulty in preventing the accumulation of queues that led nowhere at all. No one had seen anything like it before. It was the first concerted attempt at modern architecture in Britain this century, a brilliant microcosm in which every single object had been designed for its job. For a few hours people stepped out of the squalid compromises of the everyday urban scene into a world where everything was made to please. There was music on the loud speakers to walk around to. There were plenty of cafes to sit down at. Around every corner was a new delight.