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Royal Festival Hall drops controversial plans for rooftop bar


The Southbank Centre has withdrawn proposals to build a pop-up bar on the roof of London’s Royal Festival Hall after a torrent of objections 

The centre, together with hospitality venue operator Incipio Group, applied to the Lambeth Council to create a 686m² pavilion to serve as a bar and restaurant.

But the proposals drew criticism from heritage groups including a strongly worded objection from Historic England, which described it as a ‘major insensitive intervention’ to one of the UK’s best-loved post-war buildings.

The Southbank Centre said it had withdrawn its application for the rooftop bar because the feasibility of the retail proposition developed by the operator had proved ‘more challenging than anticipated’.

A spokesperson said: ‘It is with regret therefore that we have decided to withdraw the current planning application and will consider further options for the space to help secure new income streams in order to help us maintain our estate and the fabric of the Grade I-listed Royal Festival Hall, and to deliver on our charitable objective to provide “Art for All” at a time of falling public funding.’

Under the submitted proposals, the bar – Pergola on the River – would have been removed after three years to make way for an outdoor performance space.

The application stated the pergola would be an ‘enabling development’ with money generated by the bar and restaurant helping to pay for improvements to the Royal Festival Hall.

A heritage statement produced on behalf of the applicants said the pergola, designed by interior design firm Tibbatts Abel, would lead to some harm to the Royal Festival Hall, but that Lambeth should ‘should take into account the quality of the proposals, and the temporary nature’.

It said the permanent performance space would have a ‘very minor visual effect’ on the river-facing elevation.

But Historic England said while it welcomed the Southbank Centre’s intention to open up the riverside roof as a performance space it had ‘serious concerns’ about the designs for the pavilion.

‘The pavilion would largely obscure the iconic “Royal Festival Hall” signage and much of the curved roof for three years,’ it said, adding: ‘We are sympathetic to the Southbank Centre’s needs to fund its important cultural work but we are not convinced that alternative locations on the Southbank Centre site have been fully explored, alongside other means of income generation.’ 

Royal festival hall tep pergola massing

Royal festival hall tep pergola massing

The Twentieth Century Society, which also objected to the pop-up, welcomed the withdrawal of the application.

Case officer Grace Etherington said: ’We are happy to see the harmful plans have been withdrawn. We are hopeful that the Southbank Centre have come to realise the significance and popularity of the Royal Festival Hall, and we see this decision as a footing for a celebratory and sympathetic approach to preserving the jewel in the South Bank’s crown.’

The Royal Festival Hall was designed by a team from London County Council’s Architect’s Department, led by Leslie Martin and built between 1949 and 1951.

It was one of the most important Modernist buildings built in Britain and was Grade I listed in 1988.

In 2007 the building reopened following a refurbishment by Allies and Morrison and an extensive acoustic upgrade by US consultancy Kirkegaard.

Incipio Group declined to comment.

Royal festival hall temp pergola sketch

Royal festival hall temp pergola sketch


Readers' comments (4)

  • This is great news. So the big money boys do not inevitably win out. Sir Robert, you may rest easy again, where ever you are

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  • It is concerning that the South Bank Centre do not seem to understand the importance and subtlety of all their architecture and built environment though. This isn't the first strange proposal from the last few years, and probably won't be the last.

    One wonders why a cultural organisation doesn't treat architecture with the same respect or level of critical thought as they do film, performance, music, visual art etc. They of all organisations should...

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  • Once again Historic England and the 20thC Society are siding with the Nimbies! The world is changing and even the icons have to be allowed to change with it. The bar would have been an advert for the social aspects of the Festival Hall and South Bank, and made them money to help subsidise the artistic aspects. An animated facade instead of a collection of illuminated letters. In Venturi’s words the building is a duck, not a decorated shed? How many layers of quangos, bureaucrats and busy bodies do you have to go through to get anything done these days? And what does “a footing for a celebratory and sympathetic approach” mean?!

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  • Historic England? Those jokers who supported the Garden Bridge (without even seeing the relevant CGIs at the time)? Who are currently supporting towers to dwarf the gorgeous 1935 London Fire Brigade HQ further along the river at Albert Embankment? Micky Mouse wears a Historic England watch.

    Meanwhile, the RFH is about to be dwarfed by 7 towers being erected on the Shell site, the tallest 36 storeys (450ft), which, when completed will require some sort of flag of surrender on the RFH just to remind everybody it is there...

    Lambeth Council got nothing from that development for the Southbank Centre in terms of s106 of CIL. At least the SBC squeezed £11m out of the Shell developers by doing a deal on the Hungerford car park, on the other side of the railway, as a long-awaited extension of Jubilee Gardens.

    The SBC's problems stem from its origins, created in the malicious bonfire of London govt instigated by Thatcher, a shorn off rump of the GLC's flagship arts centre, with a completely insufficient grant. This is the world's biggest arts centre, being run on a shoestring, while anything north of £250m is being pumped into Rattle's vanity project in the City.

    Why? It has surely proved it's value for money. It's £70m refurb of the RFH in 2007 was excellent and on time and on budget; it helped set up a local trust to re-landscape Jubilee Gardens on 2012, which is now - blade for blade - the most visited public park in the UK. It sunk the £11m from the Hungerford car park into refurbishing the Hayward Gallery and QEH, but shamefully was not given enough to refurb the outside of these tremendous buildings. For the moment the stalactites remain, along with the graffiti and skateboarders, who in their infinite wisdom (sic) helped see off the Fielden Clegg Bradley scheme (which would have helped solve the SBC's revenue shortfall).

    And over the past decade, despite it's lack of revenue to sort out its buildings, along with the concerts the Southbank Centre has provided everything from opened up grassed rooftops and riverside sandpits to markets and festivals and beanotown - making a real people's palace of adventure.

    I mourn the Southbank Centre's desperation in proposing this rooftop bar (although I note that some years ago the NT got away with developing a more discrete one on its downstream roof terrace, temporary, but still there). What is needed now is a very serious campaign - supported by all those aspic lovers - to get the People's Palace and its environs properly funded.

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