SINCE the reclamation of the low-lying flood plains of the South Bank at the turn of the twentieth century, the area has constantly evolved over time, consistently representing the very height of modernity and avant-garde ideas. The narrow but long stretch of land, which is wedged firmly between the Thames and the mass of Waterloo Station, houses some of the city’s and, in fact the world’s, most celebrated cultural and artistic institutions. The polar opposite to the more austere and sensible North Bank, the south of the river is also home to some the most eccentric and divisive architectural landmarks in the city. How though did this industrial relic transform itself into the most dynamic cultural hub the city has to offer?
A walk along the South Bank embraces so many architectural styles and cultural phenomenons all set against the backdrop of some of the best views London has to offer, offering the design aficionado an experience unlike any other the city has to offer.
Before the outbreak of World War II, the South Bank was home to a large working population clustered around the numerous warehouses and factories that flanked this part of the Thames. The only part of this legacy that can really be seen today is the landmark OXO Tower and collection of mews houses huddled around the structure.
Today a centre for arts and small design workshops, the building was once rather ingloriously a cold store for the manufacturers of OXO cubes, with the iconic window design being a result of an earlier planning refusal for exterior advertising on the building. The buildings art deco design thus incorporated on the façades of the tower three windows – two circular and one cross – cleverly spelling OXO.
As with most of the city, the reverberations of the Blitz campaign also had a devastating affect on the South Bank, with many of the warehouses and dwellings in the area damaged beyond repair. In the wake of such disaster the post-war labour government was about to embark on a project which would redefine the role of the South Bank indefinitely, unknowingly transforming it into the cultural mecca that it is today.
In 1948 it was decided that a Festival of Britain was to be held in the summer of 1951 – an event planed to rejuvenate and revitalise the war torn and rationed nation. The centrepiece of the event would be held on the South Bank, comprising of exciting exhibitions, cultural events and architectural showcases all designed to instill a sense of anticipation and trepidation for the new decade ahead.
The centrepiece of this cultural showcase was to be the Royal Festival Hall, unashamedly Modernist in its styling, the building was designed by the young forward-thinking team of architects at the London County Council led by Holland, Hannen and Cubitts. The Hall overlooks some of the most venerable institutions in Britain such as Parliament, The House of Lords and Somerset House, yet this behemoth of a structure defiantly casts it’s concrete shadow proudly over the Thames heralding a new era of progressive Modernist British design in the capital.
Arguably, the Royal Festival Hall’s contemporary edgy design also allowed for the South Bank’s greatest exhibition of all to become the unique array of the architectural treasures this stretch of land along the Thames accommodates.
Festival Hall though was merely a catalyst for further development of the prime South Bank site, with the 1960s bringing with it a new wave of architectural ideas, many influenced by architectural movements going on all over Europe, such as the advent of the Brutalist style in Russia. Brutalism relied upon the theory that the function of the building should shape its form, and striking structures on the South Bank such as the Hayward Gallery and the Queen Elizabeth Hall adhere to this principle wholly.
Simple concrete geometric forms shape two of the most culturally important spaces in London, whilst the austere simple concrete exteriors veil within them a unique collection of performance and exhibition spaces.
In recent times, the South Bank has also seen a wave of new architectural ideas wash up on it’s shores. Recent renovations of the Royal Festival Hall and the Hayward Gallery have restored these classic examples of post war architecture to their former grandeur, whilst also enhancing features such as gallery spaces and acoustics in these venues, ensuring that the South Bank is still today a world leader for cultural highlights.
In the 1950s west of the South Bank may have been flourishing culturally, though at the same time the area to the east opposite St Paul’s was still very much a working part of London’s East End. In 1947 work began on the gargantuan Bankside Power Station, a structure which dwarfed any other on the South Bank.
In 1997 this area was extensively redeveloped, starting with the rebuilding of Shakespeare’s Globe expanding the reach of the South Bank’s influence even further down the river. Undoubtedly though, the jewel in the crown of the South Bank has to be the most visited modern art gallery in the world – the Tate Modern.
In 2000 world renowned Swiss Practice Herzog and de Meuron undertook the challenge of transforming the former monument to London’s industrial past into a gallery which would showcase the cream of modern art from the last 100 years. The breathtaking building itself is perhaps the highlight of any visit to the Tate, with the vast spaces of the Turbine Hall rivalling the sense of awe and wonder one feels in any of the grandest cathedrals, whilst the stripped back simple nature of the design combined with the industrial relics of the buildings past life give the structure a real sense of honesty.
Some of London’s most talked about exhibitions of recent times have graced the Turbine Hall’s vast spaces, incredibly leading to the massive site needing to be developed further. By next year, a great pyramid of glass and brick also by Herzog and de Meuron will expand the galleries spaces further, whilst the point of the new exhibition spaces will form yet another iconic landmark on London’s South Bank.
Today, the air of anticipation and trepidation which existed when the South bank was conceived for the Festival of Britain is still tangible. The array of architectural gems and cultural highlights in such close proximity to each other is unrivalled anywhere else in the world, whilst the atmosphere along this stretch of the river is truly amazing day or night. A walk along the South Bank embraces so many architectural styles and cultural phenomenons all set against the backdrop of some of the best views London has to offer, offering the design aficionado an experience unlike any other the city has to offer.
Hayward Gallery - Courtesy of Hayward Gallery
Tate Modern - Courtesy of Tate Modern
Oxo Tower - Leonora Enking
National Theatre at Night - Steve Cadman