Much excitement at the Southbank Centre today. New plans for the Festival Wing transformation have been unveiled.
Introduced by the genuinely and infectiously enthusiastic Chief Executive Alan Bishop, the proposed development was described as “not just refurbishment, but in some cases, repair” and will see (essentially) a big glass box appended to the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Hayward Gallery, in the process adding another communal space for the public.
The ‘landmark’ building as explained by Southbank Centre artistic director Jude Kelly, will see a poetry and literature library and heritage space on the ground floor, an ‘educational floor’ on the first, an experimental culture space on the second floor and – the crowning glory – a glass-walled orchestral rehearsal room on the top floor with views across central London. All artists impressions are designed to salivate, the one of the rehearsal room – a collaborative space for multiple orchestras to share ideas and experienced, watched by the public – was a particularly exciting one.
This transformation doesn’t appear to be insular. The transformation has been sold on the way in which it will improve the experience for audiences new and old alike. More communal spaces outside the newly created entrance to the Festival Wing with cultural ‘spaces’ inside sitting comfortably alongside retail and food outlets. In this sense the proposals echo what the Southbank Centre’s USP has been for years – that of a welcoming airy space, multi-culture for audiences and a destination not just for progressive and ‘traditional’ performance but ground-breaking collaborations. Linking the BFI, QEH, Hayward Gallery and Purcell Room into one ‘unit’ eliminates the idea that this is a collection of competing cultures, and projects a undeniable feeling of inclusivity.
Striking as it is pleasing on the eye, it seems almost impossible to imagine anyone would object to the updating of the much-dismissed aggressive concrete structural add-ons of the 1960s. The undercroft skaters might object having to move a little way down the Southbank during construction (personally, I rather hope they’re made to feel connected to the Southbank complex if and when its completed as I think they are a cultural addition to the area), but from a distance the improvement to the site will enhance the approach across the river by potential new audiences in a way that other cultural venues across London just don’t.
The plans are available for public viewing in the Southbank Centre from 7 March. After consultation, planning permission will be applied for. If approved, the construction will take between two and three years with a total cost in excess of £100 million (with an expected £20 million capital funding from Arts Council England).
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