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Wednesday, 3 June 2020

The cost of public vanity

I've seen a lot of really rubbish architecture in my time, but the biggest waste of space must be the South Bank centre in London. Millions of tourists coming into London over Hungerford bridge must wonder why we chose to build a vast 1970s concrete car park so close to the centre of London, and most Londoners seem to regard it as a free public toilet with carpets and burgers. A very few will realise that there are two resident orchestras buried within a concert hall with the most appalling acoustics in Europe, and squatting on the top like a Halfords roof box is one of the most unsatisfactory art galleries I have ever seen, which surely must have been planned by one who hated visual art with a vengeance.

The whole nasty, tacky, amateurish bodginess of the South Bank was epitomised for me by the Nelson Mandela bust. A big bronze head about six times scale squatted on a pedestal on the outside walkway visible from the train track. Like much of the haranguing by the liberal elite it was meant as a punishment and a rebuke as much as a tribute to the great man. So they put the poor chap not nobly gazing over the Thames but around the side, looking at the scruffy, blackened and spray painted railway arches so as to inflict him on millions of tired commuters, whom they presumably held responsible for the entire apartheid regime in South Africa. Well, one day a frustrated commuter took a hammer to the thing. It was so monolithic, even a 20oz hammer would have left no more a few slight dings, but to everyone's astonishment it knocked a huge chunk through Nelson's breastbone. Turned out it wasn't made of bronze at all but fibreglass.

Well, this was back in the day when the Standard was a newspaper and had journalists and stories and everything. The patrons said they thought they'd paid for bronze, so extortionately expensive was the thing. No, no, said the artist, I never said bronze. I said bronze finish, see? And if that bloke hadn't put a hammer through it, you'd never have noticed. As it turned out, the fake bronze bust was a perfect embellishment to the fake concert centre and the fake art gallery to which it was attached. It was all just a huge con on the public purse.

Anyway, all that was to point you in the direction of a Speccie piece by Norman Lebrecht, who loathes the place as much as I do. His solution is much kinder by far than mine. I would turn the entire place over to an upscale toilet and street food centre, which sometimes seem to be the only two visitor attractions that London gets right.

What happened to the Mandela bust? Oh it was repaired. A few times. Then someone realised that fibreglass is flammable, and burned the thing to pieces. Eventually, we paid up for a copy in real bronze set out of hammer-reach, thus perpetuating the practice of not only paying over the odds but twice for something of questionable merit.

The attractive Shell building obscured by a luvvie monolith

26 comments:

Michael said...

Couldn't agree more!

My old firm were QSs on the place, and while fees are fees, I was never proud of anything that went on there. The design is just plain ugly, (Mind you, we also did Thamesmead, so there's a pattern here somewhere)...

Such arrogance as 'brutalism', coming from pompous architects who 'designed' unpleasant places like these awful towers just North of the Blackwall Tunnel (urban rumour has it that the architect once kicked a rep down his office stairs - the sort of violent action they got away with back then), was around far too much in the sixties.

The extreme laziness and ineptitude of the architects of these monstrosities back then, esconcing bleak, bunker-like, rough concrete, which was destined to stain, collect filth, and attract even worse, is some sort of foul legacy attributable to just how much these people got it wrong, and as they were in cahoots with their LCC (GLC) 'clients' for some sort of evil-eyed 'new-classicism', they just went ahead and utterly ruined a once loved landscape.

Luckily, I won't have to see it in it's failed state again, as I'll never, ever go back to London.

DJK said...

It's a good story, even if there is a slight odour of urban myth about it. But what do I know?

Looking at the aerial picture on Wikipedia:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Festival_Hall#/media/File:Southbank_Centre_aerial_photo.jpg
the brutalist part doesn't look so bad, at least compared to the dross surrounding it. Most of the site is taken up by the Royal Festival Hall, which as your picture shows, is handsomely faced with stone. As a legacy of the events of 1951, even Norman Lebrecht would leave that.

Raedwald said...

Ah, Michael, you caused me much grief with Thamesmead.

My clients acquired a vacant brownfield site about half a mile from Thamesmead which we knew had once been the location of the concrete batching plant for the development. What we didn't realise was the sheer scale of below ground RC there - so much and of such resilience that breaking-out was all but impossible. So the entire vehicle depot we were building had to be redesigned twice and the falls and drainage to the 3 acres of parking about six times ...

Dadad said...

Went to the Bridget Riley exhibition there last summer. Took for ever to find the entrance so well was it hidden. The whole site is a disgusting monstrosity.

decnine said...

I live far enough from London never to have knowingly seen the South Bank centre. Your photo of the bust immediately set me thinking of Easter Island.

Unknown said...

I blame Le Corbusier. He was a very bad influence.

Don Cox

DiscoveredJoys said...

I recall the Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth.

Wikipedia: The Tricorn Centre was a shopping, nightclub and car park complex in Portsmouth, Hampshire, England. It was designed in the Brutalist style by Owen Luder and Rodney Gordon[1] and took its name from the site's shape which from the air resembled a tricorn hat. Constructed in the mid-1960s, it was demolished in 2004. It was home to one of the first Virgin Megastores and housed the largest Laser Quest arena in Europe.

I liked the Tricorn Centre as a striking architectural statement. But some people hated it and it was never really successful commercially. So they pulled it down.

David said...

Thank God the modernists of the 50s and 60s failed in their plan to turn London into a Le Corbusier inspired wasteland of concrete high rise and three lane highways. Why do architects and planners have an uncanny ability to get things so wrong? The drive for high density high rise office / residential and excluding cars in favour of public transport already looks equally misplaced.
On the subject of Arts Council subsidised tossers, can I also mention the EU flag hanging prominently outside the Young Vic since Kwame Kwei-Armah (who definitely has not knicked struggling young artists ideas) took over.

Billy Marlene said...

When I was a lad the cry was that the best view afforded in London was from the Shell Building - because it was the only place from which you couldn’t see the Shell Building.

Dave_G said...


For me you can't walk past the Scottish Parliament building without getting a headache from the inconsistent lines.

10x over budget didn't help either.

I'd prefer a concrete monstrosity over the expense and sheer ugliness of Holyrude.

DJK said...

At least the Scottish Parliament is hidden at the bottom of a valley and doesn't impose itself on the rest of the city. Unlike the new St. James Centre, with the steaming turd on top.

Raedwald said...

Yes. That's particularly unfair.

London gets the Walkie-talkie, the Gherkin and the Cheesegrater

Edinburgh gets the coiled turd.

Smoking Scot said...

Talking of Scotland, I'd respectfully submit the V & A in Dundee that actually looks like the Japanese architect's vision; a huge beached ship. To me it just looks like a giant kid stacked a bunch of slate in random order.

https://www.creativescotland.com/what-we-do/latest-news/archive/2018/01/v-And-a-dundee-opening-announced

Fortunately it's closed at present on account of that virus thingy.

Anonymous said...

I've always loathed the Hayward Gallery on South Bank and as mentioned the bleak concrete block doesn't even age well. No doubt it's listed but it should be demolished, almost anything else would be better. There's always something of the 'emperor's new clothes' about well-known architects - they say it's progressive blah blah blah blah, we see ugliness.

DJK said...

The V&A is at least fairly popular. But like other museum buildings (Zaha Hadid's Riverside Museum, in Glasgow) a lot of money was spent on a building with a whacky shape that's actually pretty small inside. Not much museum for the money, in other words.

Had the V&A not had their head up their fundament, they could have built their museum in the old Customs House on the Dundee waterfront. This is grade A listed, but currently boarded up and looking extremely sad.

Likewise the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly could have used the old Royal High School and Cardiff Coal Exchange respectively, as the original plan A had it.

Raedwald said...

One of my own favourites is the new Turner Contemporary in Margate by David Chipperfield - small ego, the building gives predominance to the art inside, not to the designer. Natural lighting (controlled), environmental systems, max hanging space for your buck. The exterior is plain but not uninteresting. Just my opinion.

Anonymous said...

DP writes..

One of the byproduct of CV19 is it has shown that financial markets can be run outside of the City of London, without any loss of effectiveness. Optical fibre and fast servers has made that possible, even working from home.

Financial markets can be dispersed, which makes it less susceptible to physical attack. For bankers and financial staff, driving to work in their Porsche, from their residences in Berkshire, to a leafy workplace, is far better, then cooped up in a tube.

Many decades ago, I was helping a friend from Sorbonne, doing a PhD on places of historic literary and cultural sites in London. Literature major. It turned out that many of these places were hidden and hard to find. Not only were they hidden away behind massive banks etc, but there was no guide to find them. No one we met, including policemen, even knew of their existence.

With perseverance, we did find them, and then were treated with so much affection, as if we were long lost kin. Tea, home made scones and cakes, and a guided tour. Absolute charming. Will never forget it.

The removal of all that ugly high rise, will lead to a skyline that is more historic London, and reveal a London worth visiting.


Mark Wadsworth said...

Agreed, the South Bank Centre is ghastly.

Michael said...

Raeders, "So the entire vehicle depot we were building had to be redesigned twice and the falls and drainage to the 3 acres of parking about six times ..."

We had a team of five in one room, fags alight, scales abounding, and re-measuring the drainage on the whole of Thamesmead at one stage! My good chum - helped by yours truly, had a schedule the size of a small African village on the various levels, manhole rings, etc, and we revelled in the poor design of the whole place! Our fees must have been eye-watering...

The engineers clearly didn't want to know/wouldn't know/couldn't know, and I respectfully suggest, that nobody really knew, (or seemed to care) what was happening around there at the time...

...but they damn well should have!

Bloody hell, I still have nightmares about 'the three-story-housing'...

I can just remember some of the other structures like the one you mention, but did you make any money out of it?

Raedwald said...

Oh yes. I never lose money - it's always the others ;)

Michael said...

"One of my own favourites is the new Turner Contemporary in Margate by David Chipperfield - small ego, the building gives predominance to the art inside, not to the designer. Natural lighting (controlled), environmental systems, max hanging space for your buck. The exterior is plain but not uninteresting. Just my opinion."

My Development Director and I were asked several times by the special group in KCC, to develop a special hotel, attached to the museum.

We had tried on many occasions, to get Thanet DC to agree to our plans on several sites in the area, (one even with planning permission, but stonked by English Heritage) but because they were so thick, they just made up imaginary excuses to do nothing. I even had several impassioned calls from KCC to just go and do it, but we'd just had about enough, and left them to it (you have to after all that wasted money)...

Councils work that way. I'm actually glad Margate got what they really wanted, I'm sure it's a great place now, but had the DC been less than neanderthal, they could have realised a huge visitor experience, managed by people who actually understood business, not some jerk just running a tiny bar, a few yards from the sea, and having 'seven'y woines from araaahnd the woorld'...

Michael said...

"Oh yes. I never lose money - it's always the others ;)"

Way to go...;0)

Anonymous said...

Well said, sir!

Not a patch on Boris's 46m invisible bridge. No risk of turning into an eyesore.

Anonymous said...

If you don't own a Land Rover, could this be the poor person's Barnard Castle?

Anonymous said...

I almost choked on my cornflakes when I read the words ‘attractive Shell building’. I’ve always considered a one of the ultimate architectural horrors. Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder!

Anonymous said...

Tony Robinson's rant on TV about the Trump Tower, despite his prior statement that it was about the architecture not the man, was the fevered product of Trump Derangement Syndrome, and Robinson showed that his portrayal of a moron was actually close to the truth about what he is.

Like DiscoveredJoys, I liked the Tricorn for its sheer greyness that reminded me of the large naval ships that Portsmouth had aplenty. It didn't wear well, was badly built and designed in parts, and wasn't a commercial success, as it didn't replace Charlotte Street and its market.

As for the South Bank, it has much of the Tricorn about it.

I'm in favour of retaining these ugly things in all their deteriorating awfulness, just to brandish in the faces of 'architects' when they want to impose further dollops of the same shite on us.