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The needs of artists and audiences should be put first

Ellis Woodman

The preference for concentrating arts buildings in a small number of central locations needs to be challenged, says AJ Critic-at-large Ellis Woodman

In 1964, the architect Christopher Alexander published A City Is Not a Tree, a highly influential assault on Modernism’s attachment to zoned city planning. Among his targets was the most prestigious public project then being constructed in New York, the Lincoln Centre for the Performing Arts. Ranged around a newly established square, the Lincoln Centre incorporates a concert hall, an opera house, two theatres and a music school. For Alexander, however, the advantages of gathering these functions together on a single site were far from obvious. ‘Does a concert hall ask to be next to an opera house?’ he wrote. ‘Can the two feed on one another? Will anybody ever visit them both, gluttonously, in a single evening, or even buy tickets from one after going to a performance in the other?’

In The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) Jane Jacobs voiced a related sentiment, bemoaning ‘New York’s decision to take all its most impressive, or potentially impressive, cultural chessmen out of play and segregate them in a planning island’. A wider distribution of these facilities, she argued, would serve both the city’s cultural and economic prosperity to far better effect.

More than half a century on, these arguments remain highly relevant, not least in London – a city now contemplating a significant expansion of its arts infrastructure at a very finite number of locations. Following the withdrawal of the planning application for its much-criticised Festival Wing project last year, the Southbank Centre is still pursuing a plan to build on the site of the Hayward Gallery and the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Meanwhile, the Barbican is investigating the opportunities raised by the proposed relocation of the Museum of London to nearby Smithfield Market, including the idea of constructing a new concert hall on the museum’s present site. With the recent announcement of a winner in the Olympicopolis project, London has also taken a step towards the establishment of a further arts centre. As that project’s name suggests, the arts centre typology can be traced back to Albertopolis, a development initiated in 1851. Over a century and a half later, is it not time to explore other models?

Further to Alexander and Jacobs’ criticisms, the continued relevance of the arts centre is cast into question by a number of more current concerns. The increasing expectation that arts programming should be accessible to as wide a demographic as possible, for instance, hardly supports its consolidation in a small number of central locations. Declining state subsidy also presents a challenge. In the past, the concentration of different institutions on one site has at least allowed for the creation of civic external spaces, distinguished by their freedom from commercial interests. The ongoing expansion of retail facilities at the Southbank Centre may represent a pragmatic response to an unsympathetic funding climate but the experience of spending time there is increasingly indistinguishable from a visit to a shopping centre.

Finally, there is the critical question of whether the art practices of the future will require the kinds of spaces a traditional arts centre has to offer. As the music critic Igor Toronyi-Lalic has remarked of the Barbican’s proposals: ‘To build a concert hall is to build a museum. Concert halls are an 18th-century response to a very specific set of 18th-century circumstances. If we keep building concert halls, we will keep on needing 18th-century music to fill them.’ There is no small irony in the fact that Olympicoplis is set to rise from a site once intended for the construction of Cedric Price’s Fun Palace. Price believed the physical infrastructure of an arts facility should lay itself open to continuous reinvention, not reassert the old institutional silos. That commitment to putting the needs of artists and audiences first has much to teach London’s arts establishment today.

The Architecture Foundation is staging a debate about the continued relevance of the arts centre at The Barbican on 29 June. For full details see Come Together: Reinventing the Arts Centre

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