The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry
I have taken a seat at the balcony above the bar and am looking down at a large space, dropped down like an outdoor plaza. Below me are strewn a collection of tables. At one is a group of students with books spread out before them. At another is a family with their two young children, running excitedly across the tiled floor. A homeless man quietly eats his lunch. A woman with a large bag pack relaxes for a moment to check her phone before heading to the station. Two people, heads close together, are having a business meeting.
When we see pictures of architecture, they are often devoid of life, pristine and fresh from the painter’s brush. But this is only a brief moment in the life of a building. The true test of good architecture is how it responds and relates to its users, how it adapts to the passing of time.
London is a city with many impressive examples of architecture, but it is also a city of the richest and the poorest. 28% of the population is in poverty) (1), with many forced to live in cramped and poor quality conditions working low-paid jobs, brushing against those with greater wealth on the tube, perhaps glimpsing through opened doors sleek lobbies and plush apartments. For many this world will forever remain beyond their grasp as London house prices continue to spiral whilst wages remain static.
One of the few places which offers a welcome reprieve from poverty and erodes the line between different economic classes are public buildings. Here one can go without payment, or purpose, or fear of being denied entrance because of the way you dress or where you come from.
One such public building spreads itself across the waterfront somewhat resembling a stranded ocean liner, its decks overlooking the River Thames. Externally in appearance it is not striking when compared to some of London’s more showy buildings. The white render gives it a somewhat bland appearance. The swooping arc of the theatre appears a bulging protrusion above the Mies-like slender columns and glazing bars of the main exterior.
The building’s lack of strong external prominence plays a key part in one of its most baffling design qualities - it has no discernible main entrance. Instead they are many, from all sides and on multiple levels, making it a challenge to meet up with anyone. However this deliberate lack of frontage is one of its best features as it creates a complete lack of hierarchy or diction on how one enters, and occupies, the building. There is no intimidating reception desk or surely security guard. Entry is free and flowing, inviting a wide range of people to make use of it.
This is also a warm building. Modern buildings are often characterised by hard cold materials. To reach for a handrail is to be met by the coldness of chrome. To step into the entrance is to feel the hard resistance of stone or concrete.
It is an unexpected and welcome luxury to be greeted instead by the soft plush give of carpet underfoot on the upper levels. It is a pleasure to run your hand along the well varnished timber handrails, or to sit amongst the yellowing wood panelling. The pallet is light - white, beige, soft grey, brass and warm wood.
Whilst other buildings, such as the Barbican and the National Theatre, seem to be solids from which space has been carved, this is a glazed box inside of which objects have been placed - the unseen mass of the theatre looming above like an ‘egg in a box’ (2), the staircases winding upwards to light-filled galleries. Circulation is in abundance, generously wide, and creating a variety of situations from sheltered nooks to large expanses which invite you to sit or move at a leisurely pace. It is ideal for that most relaxing and passive of pleasures – people watching.
Although the purpose of the building is to house the theatre, it can be appreciated and used extensively without ever setting foot inside it. The remainder of the building could be viewed as auxiliary space supporting the theatre, and because of this it does not commit you to pay for your time through a ticket or a beverage, or make you feel uncomfortable about staying too long, or resent the fact you have come with seven or eight of your friends. It welcomes everybody as if it were merely an extension of the external pavement outside.
The users are a surprisingly mixed cross-section of the London demographic. Hence the scene I described at the beginning of this piece. I myself have used this building in various ways. I have come here to to attend the Architecture for Humanity monthly meet ups, to assist a group folding paper cranes for a special screening of The Birds at the BFI, to celebrate the brief visit of a friend, to study both with a group and in solitude for my final architectural qualification, to visit an exhibition, or indeed to write this very article.
The building was completed in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain, a festival which was designed to celebrate the contributions Britain had made in various fields – a tonic to the aftermath of World War II. It was always intended to be a building which made no demarcation between different classes but was open and accessible to all (3). The Royal Festival Hall was the only building on the Southbank to survive demolition after the festival, and it has proved its worth in that time as demonstrated by the £111 million that was spent on its renovation in 2007.
Much of its success must lie in how comfortable people feel taking over the building, the quality of space that is available inside, and the lack of surveillance or authority that is imposed. Here is a building which beautifully demonstrates how its core concept of openness and equality has, and will continue to be, compatible to modern society and thus allow the building to be continually relevant, continually active, and continually loved.