Southbank Centre – the most vibrant arts centre in the country

Southbank Centre is an organisation whose deep cultural output and audience engagement
requires that they are skilled in curating experiences that embrace every dimension of time
from the most ephemeral to the most enduring, within architecture, landscape and events
across their entire site. Steven Smith of urban narrative discusses how low cost temporary interventions were used as part of the festival programme to test ideas before making commitments to expensive permanent alterations

Southbank Centre is the largest integrated arts foundation in the world. Created in 1951 for the Festival of Britain, the 21-acre site on the Thames Embankment includes Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room, the Hayward Gallery, and the Saison Poetry Library.

Southbank Centre’s festival programme, led by Artistic Director Jude Kelly, provided the cultural framework for a diverse programme that challenged and inspired engagement, dialogue and debate between audiences, performers and visitors. Our first task with Southbank Centre was to work with Frank Duffy and the team at DEGW to analyse the use of every part of the Southbank Centre site. The report of our findings entitled ‘A Place for All the Arts’ published in 2011 identified large parts of the site that were dysfunctional and under utilised and set priorities for improvements. We then went on to create the spatial logic to support the festival programme to make use of all the underused spaces the report identified so that festival inspiration reached every corner of the site. 

In addition we explored how the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and Hayward Gallery, (renamed the Festival Wing), could be restored and reinvented to support contemporary arts programming. To develop the brief we proposed a series of low cost temporary interventions as part of the festival programme to test ideas before making commitments to expensive permanent alterations. Working with dozens of artists, designers and makers, roof gardens have been planted; hidden spaces opened up for events; lost outdoor gallery spaces reinhabited; temporary staircases made new connections and transform patterns of movement; paint, banners and graphics were deployed to invigorate the buildings; and pop-up restaurants were installed in recycled containers and abandoned temporary structures.

The architects conception for how the buildings would be inhabited. Tuning up the Southbank by Ron Herron.

Through this collaborative process, the Southbank Centre rediscovered the radical architectural ideas that inspired the architecture of the festival Wing. The ground-breaking architects of the 1960’s buildings conceived the site as a concrete landscape for the overlay of artworks, graphic installations and ephemeral additions. Fifty years on, festival interventions revealed the power of these founding architectural concepts and brought them vividly to life.

We prepared the architectural brief and carried out the technical feasibility study for the refurbishment and adaptation of the Festival Wing building from a process derived from studying the success (and occasional failure) of ephemeral installations.

The methods we have explored with Southbank Centre have enabled the organisation to develop a coherent narrative for the site as a whole. Public spaces and buildings became integrally connected to the remarkable architectural legacy, and festival programming continues to create a dynamic focus for cultural life in London.

At Southbank Centre we encountered a client who completely and intuitively understood that great places generate compelling narratives which are communicated through live encounters between people and through performances, events, exhibits and installations. For this organisation public spaces and architecture merely provide locations and scenery around encounters and are only successful if they support and amplify the drama.

The focus on the ephemeral above the material in the briefing for city-making provides profound lessons for all those engaged in the briefing and creation of cities whose training would typically suggest an inversion of this way of apprehending the experience of the city.

Exchanging memories of Southbank London: Frank Duffy and Steven Smith, September 2021.

Steven Smith is an architect and urbanist with over 30 years’ professional experience of working on a diverse, international portfolio of projects across Europe, Asia and Australia including some of the most challenging, large-scale development projects. After a successful career at DEGW, in 2010 he founded urban narrative,  working with clients to create the language for new urban places through research, interactive design, events and enriched conversation.

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