South Bank Redevelopment Proposals by Fielden Clegg Bradley Studios.

( 4th July 2013. After some serious criticisms from National Theatre, the client/architects has agreed to withdraw the current planning application to carry out further work before resubmitting it. Sensible move for all concerned and us.)

You may have gathered from my recent contributions on Flickr that I have virtually grown with the South Bank and have been a frequent user of all the venues in this area from early 60s to now.

I have also admired Fielden Clegg Bradley Studios work for some time. With this background, I would like to express some of my initial views concerning the proposals which are based on fairly sketchy information released to the press.

I was of the view that this complex should not be listed, however appointment of an intelligent architectural practice and a sensible brief was essential to do justice to the site and it was a relief to see FCB appointed.

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It is obvious that the client is desperate to cram  maximum accommodation on this site to meet their expectations after leading a frustrated existence without having many ‘bells and whistles’ similar recently built projects have in major cities.

Architects seem to be performing a difficult ‘tight-rope’ trick and their initial offerings seem quite an outstanding achievement. This is not a bad time to raise concerns by observers who know this area and its history of growth and have some constructive criticism to offer.

The architectural pedigrees of the original 60s buildings and RFH are well known and ‘over-reverential’ architectural approach to alterations sometime expected by conservationists would be inappropriate in this instance.

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The proposals for central raised block facing RFH may appear large but I see this as a good location to gain badly needed accommodation.

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My only observation (not a criticism) is that the existing pedestrian route under Waterloo Bridge connecting this main space to the terraces of National Theatre is extremely restricted and arrival at the side of NT from under the bridge is a disappointing experience and is a bit of an anti climax. Some improvements around here, with blessings of NT, would be hugely beneficial to all concerned.

My main concerns relate to the long glass block running parallel to the bridge housing Poetry Library, Literature Centre and Restaurants.

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The building works  and fits well when seen from Hungerford Bridge side as it acts as another ‘book-end’ (the other one being the new building between RFH and railway track) and neatly contains the activities on this side of the Waterloo Bridge.

However, in my opinion all the negative factors come into play from Waterloo Bridge and NT side. Let me share some of these negative aspects and its impact on the surrounding area.

  • The pedestrians and drivers when crossing the bridge are able to see concrete structures of NT on one and QEH, Hayward on the other side with their distinct ‘idiosyncratic approaches’ almost having a dialogue with each other.

      This would be interrupted by the new block at least at QEH end.

  • The end elevation of this block as seen by people on the bridge approaching Waterloo Station would be out of character and far from satisfactory in its scale and appearance. Although the views from inside this building can be very exciting.
  • The views from the roof terraces of National Theatre currently enjoying the side elevations of QEH would be lost for ever depriving the witty bouncing of a concrete banter between these dissimilar but contemporary icons.
  • Walking at the bottom of a fairly long sheer wall of this block close to the Bridge pavement is alien in to the local urban context. A similar situation is only experienced where the pavement abuts the building line in Lancaster Place which directly relates to context of Strand and well before the bridge starts. Once you are on the bridge the ability to look down from pavements on both sides exists throughout the length of the bridge which will be disrupted by this block.

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An important architectural location without listed status puts even more onerous responsibility on a caring and gifted architect and the client. This is a good scheme to prove that excellent results are possible to obtain without ‘crutches’ of listing status.SerpentinePavilionJune13 048

The end of the linear block would rise on the left of QEH. Lower floor is probably Cafe or Restaurant.

The views from the footpaths of Waterloo Bridge give you glimpses of a busy riverside walk and various terraces of NT.

All sketches and perspectives from Architects press release and photos by Iqbal Aalam.

More photographs of this and other GLC projects see  

Hayward Gallery, Under construction.

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Archigram is well known and its influences on architectural world are clearly understood and illustrated. The name of Cedric Price (1934-2003) is often heard in Archigram circles as he was close to the group and took active part in discussions and even contributed but was never a formal member.

He was born in Potteries  his father was an architect who specialised in Art Deco Cinema design. Cedric Price was trained at Cambridge and AA where he also taught influencing many architects, Richard Rogers, Rem Koolhaas, Will Alsop to name a few. He also worked for Maxwell Fry & Denys Lasdun before setting his own practice to build Aviary for London Zoo. He built very little but like many other thinkers had tremendous influence on future direction of architecture which  continues to this day.

He was a believer in “calculated uncertainty” where adaptable, temporary structures were preferred. He believed that an ‘anticipatory architect’ should give people the freedom to control to shape their own environments. All buildings according to him should allow for obsolescence and complete change of use. Will Alsop, who worked for him in early 70s recalls  CP’s delight in designing a Cafe for Blackpool Zoo which was eventually to be turned into a giraffe home. This fitted perfectly into his themes of uncertainty, adaptability and change.

In his ‘Thinkbelt’ University project he proposed simple, moveable buildings which would deliver education “with the same lack of peculiarity as the supply of drinking water.”

His most influential project was ‘Fun Palace (1961) ‘  for Joan Littlewood. It was killed off by local government bureaucracy. The design of Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s Pompidou Centre in Paris is called a direct descendant. Soon after that he designed ‘ Potteries Thinkbelt (1964)’ which still makes great deal of sense. Among his built projects only Aviary in London Zoo remains, as he ensured that the other temporary structure for a community use ‘Inter-Action Centre’ in Kentish Town was not listed but demolished as intended. It is also amusing to recall that he was the only architect who was a fully paid-up member of ‘Britain’s National Institute of Demolition Contractors’.

“Aviary was designed for a community of birds and his idea was that once the community was

established it would be possible to remove the netting . The skin was a temporary feature: it only needed to be there long enough for the birds to begin to feel at home and after that they would not leave anyway. ………Price the theoritician, functionalist was frightened of and avoided style. …. he wasn’t interested in being remebered. He was building a memory.” 1*

Later in his life he worked on  ‘Magnet City’ which was an exercise in using intermediary spaces in London urban landscape to stimulate new patterns and situations for urban movement in the city. shown in an exhibition in 1997.

He also contributed to the ‘Non-Plan’ debate with Paul Baker and Peter Hall. This basically was an ‘anti-planning polemic’ which resulted in the formation of ‘enterprise zones’ like Canary Wharf in London and  ‘Metroland’ in Gateshead. On personal level I never came to see great sense in this reaction against the previous planning failures and put in their this ‘free for all’  American style money making  system even if it generated big business and attracted lots of users.

1* Will Alsop’s recollections.

Photo above shows three views (interior & exterior) of Fun Palace by Cedric Price 1962.

The Arts Barn

This science based university wanted to continue supporting music drama and arts activities which took place in an old undersized barn and its outbuilding. Smithsons by this time had some experience of drip-drip of funding and their proposals for a new building incorporating some existing buildings went for a very flexible approach with no less than 14 components building offering maximum flexibility for growth as funds became available. Unfortunately, the simple fact that funds quite often do not materialize for ages and the needs of the buildings change greatly meant that not one of these options was built apart from the first phase of this recreational building, a small performance auditorium at the east end of the campus was handed over to the university in 1990.

One part of the original Arts Barn and Smithsons multi-functional performance space continue to function despite very limited ancillary spaces essential to manage a multi-purpose space. Some of the original windows had to be blocked to create these essential areas to the detriment of the building and its use. There have been two unsuccessful architectural competitions, and one more is in offing, to enlarge and create an appropriate arts centre for this well used and flourishing art recreational building.

I must admit my own ignorance of influences of Hugo Haring on Smithsons till very recently, but this has been a key to understand a lot of things which begin to fall in right places. The development of a multi-functional performance spaces in Britain over last 50 years has produced some outstanding examples (Young Vic, Half Moon Theatre etc) but Alison Smithson’s structural mastery with a pristine timeless form, shunning all form making traps is a lesson I found a revelation.

 

The location of old Barn and the new auditorium was used by Smithsons to full advantage by forming an edge to a forecourt             situated to the east of  E6 acting as satellite or a gate house.

Peter Smithson wrote “ … the Art Barn …changes one’s perception of this space at the east end of the campus…the whole entrance side—suddenly, with one small intervention, seems like an old market square that can accept many different activities at many different times and seems perfectly suited to each; for example: first point of contact with the university community…student car boot sales…drive and ride for town festivals… students happenings… student rag assembly point… morris dancing… and so on.”

(Oh! How I would love to see students doing morris dancing here)

One must not be mislead by the simplicity of this building of sound construction using durable materials in a rectangular form. The simplicity of wall surfaces, both external and internal has been achieved by considerable hard work by architects and the  structural engineers. The load-bearing external cavity wall construction supporting an irregular plan form with twin gantries falling in one direction giving an asymmetrical section, relies heavily on lateral support offered by deep steel trusses, gantries and side galleries. A rather complicated system of vertical steel reinforcement rods in hollow concrete blocks filled with concrete at every fourth course and horizontal mesh steel in the coursing, in the areas where the supports were not available.

This seems to be in keeping with Smithsons constant experimenting with the building process resulting in thoroughly ‘conglomerate structure’ and alludes to Hugo Haring school of thought.

Another old theme of half complete building compared with a kind of ‘ruin in advance’ was also mentioned by Smithsons  “ …a place that can be walked through like a ruined abbey … like San Galgano, to name one sufficiently modest … columns standing bare; inside, outside, both seemingly pastoral and as one”. Unfortunately stainless steel has never made a good ruin, but good construction and a sensible location would at least ensure (I hope) that the building is incorporated in a future larger project. In a way I am relieved that Alison’s  ‘Hexenhaus’ like spidery cellular structures were never constructed as their scale, location and design seemed completely out of character with the ‘mat’ of original campus. These intrusions were very likely to be in the way of recently built huge expansion to sports facilities next to the Arts Barn and were very likely to face a ‘Robinhood’ like fate.

It takes a while for eyes to get used to severe reductive simplicity of visual language used in this structure, made more difficult by introduction of stainless steel fascias which stubbornly retain their hostile shine. The unexplained mysterious openings and ‘flashings’ still await any one of the 14 possible attachment of components which Alison Smithson designed in hope of future growth when the funds became available. The damage to a very tenderly and carefully designed building is difficult to assess when most of the major openings to the entrance lobby are blocked and storage facilities now clutter this (and external) space obliterating the vital source of light and views to the outside green space.

I am afraid that intrinsic qualities of this small but important building and its link with the historic continuity to the modern movement have failed to register with the lay public and architectural world in this country so far. I feel that the only chance of its survival in a meaningful way lies with an intelligent architect appointed to extend this facility. This well built, carefully positioned building can easily become an integral part of the proposals as originally envisaged by Alison Smithson. A good case can be made on economical grounds alone but please do not forget, the duty of teaching the architectural students being trained within yards of this ‘architectural history lesson’ would sooner or later come to realize the intentions of these great teachers and learn by experiencing and moving around this modest, subtle and a great little building.

The old b&w photos and information from AJs, 30 November 1983 and 16 January 1991.

Smithsons set on Flickr http; http://www.flickr.com/photos/iqbalaalam/sets/72157604409881882/