The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

The Royal Festival Hall gets a 1950s makeover

We have been involved for some time with a number of applications dealing with the general refurbishment and upgrading of the Royal Festival Hall. The iconic post-war Grade I listed building, which is both spectacular architecturally and socially important as a marker of a new hopeful period in Britain, suffered many alterations since its 1951 completion, mainly in the 1960s, and the firm Allies and Morrison have been trying for some years to undo much of the damage the building suffered over the years.

The current refurbishment plans are so comprehensive that half a dozen Listed Building Consent applications have been submitted to the London Borough of Lambeth. There is a definitive move to eliminate certain features resulting from the 1960s alterations and re-instate the original 1951 circulation plan. The orientation of the whole building changed in the 1960s when the main entrance was moved from its original location on the eastern Waterloo Bridge elevation to the newly created external riverside walkways. The current scheme seeks to move back the main entrance to its original position, a more culturally prominent position with both Hayward Gallery and Queen Elisabeth Hall entrances there, as well as to create a new public square by Belvedere Road.

Another welcome move is the freeing up on level 2 of much of the space at present occupied by retail and catering, an intrusion Peter Moro had much deplored. The existing commercial facilities would be moved down a level, the 1960s staircase removed and the space it presently occupies infilled. A new café would be inserted on level 2, very much in keeping with the 1951 idea of a river terrace where people can socialise and drink coffee.

The original 1950s route led directly to the central bar, located in the middle of the main foyer on level 2. This facility has survived in its original location and still fulfils its original role. It is seen by the Twentieth Century Society as an essential focal and social point, and will be even more so following the opening of the floor space.

The current proposals do away with this amenity. The reasoning behind this drastic proposal is that the central bar is sunk into the floor, hence not easily accessible to disabled people. The Society very much is opposed the bar’s proposed infilling and relocation. We are adamant that the central bar, as the culmination of the processional route, must remain open in its original form.

We are also unhappy with the numerous alterations affecting the original 1951 toilets. The design of the ladies’ powder room and other lavatories was special and should be kept. Although it is obvious from the plans submitted that the number of cubicles has been increased, very little other information has been submitted with regard to detailing, design and materials proposed. We feel these unique toilets, and attached ladies powder rooms, have been well maintained over the years and that only a little cosmetic work is needed. If more facilities are required, they should be provided separately, in order to preserve the 1950s ones in their original layout.

It is proposed to re-site the box office close to the new entrance on Festival Square and to position a lift to run up from the foyer to the top floors. The addition of a glass lift for disabled use seems to be a reasonably good solution. However, its exit onto one of a pair of little known terraces on Level 6 would entail its part enclosure. We accept that the lift would impinge onto one of the terraces but wish to see the rest of the two spaces left as open as possible. The west terrace should be restored, with the lift running up within the line of the bay and its wall recessed from that of the side of the building: not enclosing half of the pergola as presently proposed. Any enclosure would also read from the outside.

It is also proposed to create two new flights of stairs on the riverside terrace covered by square canopies. There had originally been an L-shaped stair on the site with a canopy, linking the ground level to Level 2. Unfortunately, we found the proposed design to lack of sculptural quality and to be merely functional. The new external stairs should show more of the showmanship displayed inside the Royal Festival Hall and perhaps be splayed, with the canopies not attached to the façade.

We therefore broadly support this major refurbishment project but feel it is essential to safeguard these important spaces, which have survived intact since the Royal Festival Hall completion, as well as too ensure that the new built elements live up to the consistent quality displayed by the original architects.

Emmanuelle Morgan