'It's not a brutal Corbusian modernism. It's a very human modernism'. This is how Graham Morrison of Allies & Morrison sums up the Royal Festival Hall.
Built by the London County Council in 1949-1951 as part of the Festival of Britain celebrations, the rfh was the first major public building to be built in Britain after the war, and marked the start of the South Bank's rejuvenation as a cultural centre.
In June 1951, the Architectural Review, which dedicated an entire issue to the building, heralded it as 'uncompromisingly modern'. Modern it certainly was but, as Morrison now points out, it was not nearly as uncompromising as some of its international counterparts. 'It represents a
peculiarly English modernism, which draws together all those pre-war craft traditions.'
There is indeed a richness to the rfh, evident in the generous informally planned spaces, and in the range of materials, from the carpets designed by Moro and Martin, to the fossil-bed marble used to clad the external walls of the auditorium. In a rare moment of levity, the Architectural Review featured on its cover a Hoffnungesque cartoon clarinettist, superimposed on the marble, with fossils forming the musician's eyes and the clarinet base. It was one instance of how people responded to the warmth, and even the wit, of the building's texture - a far cry from cool Corbusian concrete.
Morrison and his colleague Diane Haigh have a particular sentimental attachment to the RFH. Both have enormous respect for the original architects of the building: Robert Matthew, Leslie Martin and Peter Moro, and both were taught by Martin at Cambridge. They are delighted that Allies & Morrison has been entrusted with the building. As Morrison puts it: 'As a practice we are very interested in putting ourselves in the tradition of people who built this, and the Arts and Crafts tradition before.'
Last year, Allies & Morrison's proposals for the rfh seemed on the brink of receiving £20 million of Lottery funding, but the application was part of a co-ordinated scheme to rejuvenate the South Bank, and the money evaporated with the demise of Richard Rogers' scheme for a wavy glass roof.
A new bid was submitted in December 1988, with the rfh project seen as an independent Heritage Lottery Fund bid, on the understanding that Allies & Morrison would work with the successful master-planner for the South Bank Centre: 'We've said that this should be the dominant focus of the masterplan, and not subordinated to the big idea.' The bid is of a similar scale to the previous one - Allies & Morrison are hoping for £20 million towards what it predicts will be a £30-million project, but work has been organised in such a way that it can be implemented in phases without needing to close the building.
As the consultant architect for the rfh since 1992, the company has developed a capacity to consider incremental changes in the context of a grand vision. Completed projects include the Gamelan Room, the completion of the hugely successful Peoples' Palace restaurant, and the removal of infill to the main foyer and stairs - a move which has restored the architects' vision of a building of complete transparency and clarity.
All are part of a strategy to update the building and make it more accessible, while restoring the integrity of the original design. It is a laborious task which calls for an assessment of the piecemeal alterations which have accumulated over the years. In Morrison's words, 'We're trying to slice through all the confusion and refocus the original ideas.'
This has been done with the aid of the conservation plan, a comprehensive document written by Diane Haigh as a key part of the Lottery bid. Following a similar format to pioneering research on the Sydney Opera House carried out by James Semple Kerr, the conservation plan aims to document the building's history, and to assess its architectural significance and cultural and historical significance.
Haigh insists that, far from encouraging a slavish approach to conservation, the document can be liberating. She says: 'It encourages you to really understand the building, to decide what is the essence of the project, which elements are central to the original ideas, and which bits have crept in to confuse them.'
Most major alterations to the rfh came about in 1964 when the lcc extended the building at either end to provide facilities which, due to lack of time and money, were never included in 1951. At the same time, the rfh was encircled by high-level walkways joining the various new buildings on the South Bank, which reorientated the entrances of the rfh on to the river frontage. The building was effectively 'turned round'. A quick flick through the conservation document shows that from this point on, plans were shown with the river, rather than Belvedere Road, at the bottom, meaning a 90degrees change of axis.
To reassert the original E/W axis, and recapture the informality implicit in the asymmetrical plan, Allies & Morrison plans to enlarge the original Hungerford entrance and emphasise the Waterloo doors. This will restore the foyer to its former glory, complete with the zig-zag foyer cloakroom, which was long since removed. At present, the jaunty angle of the foyer floor's stonework, which once reflected the angles of the cloakrooms counters, looks distinctly out of place. The existing stair, added to the river frontage in 1964, will be slabbed over, restoring this long river terrace as an open-plan piano nobile, as opposed to a rather disjointed substitute ground floor.
Once more the space will enjoy stunning views of the Thames - at present obscured by a concrete balustrade to the river, and an unfortunately placed heating strip on the glazed facade.
As well as restoring original access routes, the new plan provides for disabled access which was barely considered in the original design. At present, the lifts stop at half-landings and the disabled have to use the service lift to reach other floors. Having identified 'the one spot on the plan visible from everywhere, which can deliver to everywhere it's needed' (appropriately close to the Waterloo entrance), Allies & Morrison plans to install a glass lift, solving these problems at a stroke. The lift will allow everybody to reach parts of the building which were previously inaccessible or under-used.
With the demise of the glc in 1986 the rfh, previously administered from County Hall, had to accommodate its own offices, and administration tasks have since colonised every available space. Allies & Morrison plans to relocate staff to level O, where they will be together in purpose-designed accommodation for the first time. As well as reclaiming the building's various bars, terraces and roof gardens for the public, the removal of clutter will restore the transparency and open up the stunning views of the city.
Public spaces outside the building will be replanned, too. The walkway which now blocks the light alongside Belvedere Road is to be removed - the first move in the transformation of a rather dismal space into a thriving 'town square'. Morrison is confident that all these 'people spaces' will be well-used, pointing out that the rfh is already a popular public urban space, with five times as many people attending exhibitions or using other facilities than
visiting the auditorium itself. Friday night 'commuter jazz' concerts are particularly successful: 'This project is about building on the great success of the last 50 years at the rfh, and will ensure that it continues to be used and enjoyed for the next 50 years.'