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Amnesia, politics, BSF and the South Bank

There is an exchange in an early John le Carré novel where one character says (to the George Smiley figure) that he loves music and melody, but no sooner has the music ended than he forgets what he has just heard. ‘You should go into politics,’ replies Smiley.

I have been thinking about amnesia, prompted not least by the James Review of school building procurement. When the report came out, I remarked in these pages that it was a history-free zone, in which the record of attempts to produce workable design and construction systems for this building type went unremarked. Why?

There has been no discussion of the subject subsequently – merely the abolition of Partnership for Schools, very shortly after the education secretary paid huge tribute to the wonderful work done by its departing chief executive. He had obviously spotted a sinking ship quicker than his employees. He has now gone into the private school procurement sector, no doubt taking with him the policies his organisation pursued to deliver the Building Schools for the Future programme. Or perhaps he will forget them. Soon we will have forgotten his name, and PFS, and BSF, swept along by the new orthodoxy of ‘free’ (haha) schools.

To adapt Donald Rumsfeld, there are things we know we’ve forgotten; things we don’t know we’ve forgotten (until reminded); and things we cannot know we’ve forgotten because we’re not sure if we knew them in the first place.

I found myself suffering from the latter condition at an RIBA talk event on the Festival of Britain, held in the Royal Festival Hall last Sunday. I had the pleasure of chairing contributors comprising Jean Symons, who worked on the RFH as a student and gave us insight into what it was like at the time; the excellent Elain Harwood from English Heritage on the general background to the festival; and critic Owen Hatherley, who spoke about the festival’s legacy, while, in passing, reminding us of Churchill’s description of the festival as ‘three-dimensional socialist propaganda’.

What makes the festival so interesting for me is its echoes in relation to the 2012 London Olympics. Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson’s attempt to rekindle the spirit of 1951 for the Millennium failed because there was no intellectual or emotional/psychological grounding to it. As Stephen Bayley noted at the time, the day the catering commission went to McDonald’s, you knew it was all over.

By contrast, Ken Livingstone’s determined, and successful, initiative to win the Olympics for London was based fair and square on a profound belief that the impoverished, derelict and dangerous lower Lea Valley should be regenerated, both above and below ground.

Like the Festival of Britain, the Olympics will not take place simply on one site. There is a major housing element, as with the Lansbury Estate in 1951, though this time a mixture of public and private. The four main Olympic buildings will remain as a permanent legacy, compared to the RFH alone from 1951. There is even a ‘cultural Olympiad’, details of which we await. (My pet idea is for the RIBA to invite all living Gold medallists to London next year for an event celebrating the mother of the arts.)

Meanwhile, back on the South Bank, Jubilee Gardens will shortly experience improvement at last, to designs by West 8; the competition to replace the Shell Centre (excluding the tower) is reaching its climax; Eric Reynolds is devising ‘meanwhile’ uses for the Shell estate; and, next
to Waterloo Station, David Chipperfield is proceeding with a major mixed commercial development.

What I hadn’t remembered (or had not known) was the Holden plan for a major commercial scheme on the South Bank that would have paid for the RFH and National Theatre, blocked by Herbert Morrison and Isaac Hayward. As part of this alternative vision, a road bridge was proposed, which would have carried traffic through to Trafalgar Square. What ambition! What big city thinking! Alas, long forgotten.

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