I am surprised by the muted reaction to proposals for the South Bank Centre. Can it be fatigue as one masterplan after another 'bites the dust'?
Or is it silent gratitude that here at last is a plan that has minimum impact on the existing fabric?
But does it? Mather's proposals are specious.
There is just as much commerce and extraneous shopping facilities in his plan as in the previous Farrell one, and where is the synthesis of design that would define the area and delineate it incontrovertibly as 'Arts Centre'?
The rot set in during the Thatcher era when arts enterprises were 'encouraged' to pay their way. Sponsorship and a commercial element in theatres, museums and concert halls was made indispensable to their survival. This assumption seems to have been manifest in the South Bank design brief because all the buildings have in the past succumbed to it. The RNT has had to glass-in its porte cochere because it didn't have enough room for its bookshop. The RFH has had to have a spring clean of all the cluttering stalls to regain some of its original empty elegance. And the director of the Hayward complains, understandably, that there is not enough room for the necessary ancillary activities.
Of course not. These buildings were designed when commerce did not have to support the arts. We now have the absurd situation where each of these buildings, all contiguous, not only has its own restaurant facilities but also a bookshop.
Whereas some refreshment is necessary close by, there is a good case for centralising most other services, leaving the buildings free of clutter and not distracting from the artistic experience or diluting it. An audience enjoys parading and talking in the intervals and space is valuable to the atmosphere.
This raises questions about the allocation of subsidies and what percentages should go to running the enterprises so that there is no need for them to rely on shops for income, and what amount should be expenditure on capital projects to make this happen. The form of the masterplan has therefore to follow the efficient functioning of the buildings.
A more radical approach is called for. This cutprice piecemeal sticking-plaster version will not solve the South Bank's urban design problems.
To enhance the quality of the area there is a need to:
Centralise commercial elements that are peripheral to the main activity, possibly in between the buildings under a glass roof to reduce the bulk. There must be a presumption that these are ones directly connected to the arts.
Have covered links and access to the buildings.
There is no point in getting rid of the 'wet and windy' walkways if you still have wet and windy spaces between the buildings. Get rid of extraneous commerce like the blade blocks/gateways. They spoil the views of, and from, the South Bank.
Have no parking provision in the area - other than disabled.
Get rid of the greenery on the roof of the shopping mall (which has got to go too).
Why is this token gesture of greenery there in the first place? It surely represents a failure of nerve on the part of the architects? What is wrong with good modern architecture and good hard urban landscaping? St Mark's Square in Venice does not have a single tree in it! Or you could flood Jubilee Gardens and make it into a water square. At least that would be more 'in keeping' than a shopping mall.
To do less is to dumb down the distinctive and unique experience of the South Bank.
Clinton Greyn, London W2