The FCB design deals with the circulation problem via a clarity of diagram unmatched by other competitors writes Paul Finch
National Theatre folk were less than amused when the Prince of Wales likened their building to a nuclear power station. It is, after all, the Royal National Theatre. Yet their reaction to the proposed designs for the Festival Wing of the neighbouring Southbank Centre is not far off that foolish sideswipe. Having had months to think about the project, the subject of extensive consultations, the theatre’s director has launched a broadside at the scheme just as it was about to be submitted for planning.
Speaking as someone who has given the NT a certain amount of advice and support over the years, it pains me to say I can find little merit in its criticism of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios’ competition-winning design, especially the faux-horror that it will change views. Sadly, like an out-of-touch theatre critic shocked by Samuel Beckett, the rush to judgement includes the assumption that any change of view will be for the worse. To try to justify the maiden-aunt vapour attack, much is made of Lasdun’s intentions in relation to views of and from his great building. But in its apparent attempt to pull down the curtains on history, the NT has omitted two crucial points about its location: it wasn’t first choice; and it was an accident that it ended up where it did.
Denys Lasdun’s original design was for both a theatre and opera house in front of the Shell Centre, on what is now Jubilee Gardens. Legal obstacles prevented construction there and the Greater London Council found another site along the river where Laurence Olivier could pursue his magnificent endeavour. It is fair to say, from his own analysis, that Lasdun paid little attention to the Hayward Gallery, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Rooms next door, nor indeed to the Royal Festival Hall or Hungerford Bridge in his concept.
There was little engagement with the South London beyond, to which the NT presented a blind concrete elevation whose metaphorical message was ‘keep out’. (The excellent Haworth Tompkins remodelling of the NT deals with this, as well as problems on the riverside elevations, which cannot be blamed on Lasdun.)
The Festival Wing is a neighbour of the NT, but is scarcely right next door, being separated by a bridge including two pavements and six traffic lanes. Nothing in the proposed design can seriously detract from the formal power of the Lasdun stand-alone - certainly not compared with the effect on its setting of the nearby Doon Street Tower by Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, yet to be delivered.
In any event, the real point about the Festival wing design was not how to appease Nimby objections (plus those of the usual suspects like English Heritage and the 20th Century Society), but how to improve the notorious circulation problems between and within the existing buildings without destroying their integrity, and how to provide very significant new accommodation for music and literature.
The FCB design deals with this in an exemplary way, demolishing nothing, improving access and circulation via a clarity of diagram unmatched by other competitors and supported by the surviving original architects. Design Council CABE has supported the proposal in the round, though we asked for the designers to be given more time to work up the detail of the two spectacular glazed blocks above the existing buildings. That is indeed happening, since planning is being delayed while the question of skateboarding facilities is resolved.
Criticism of the scheme as being a commercial development, with the cultural facilities provided as a sop, is an exact reversal of the truth. It is clearly not only the NT that is getting overheated.