After five and a half years of work on the Hayward Gallery, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room, Associate Richard Battye reflects on the slow, but complicated process of architecture.
To borrow from Douglas Adams, you just won't believe how grindingly, numbingly, relentlessly slow it can be. You may think that the single carriageway section of the A303 past Stonehenge is slow, but that's a record-breaking attempt at the Kessel Run compared to architecture.
This isn’t to say that things don’t happen, and that you don’t meet a furious steeplechase of deadlines along the way, but building things does take time.
Five and a bit years after we started working with Southbank Centre on their concrete buildings, the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and Hayward Gallery, we are almost done. The Hayward Gallery is complete, back in Southbank Centre’s possession and open to the public with a forty year retrospective of Andreas Gursky’s spectacular photographs. And the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room are finally re-appearing from their internal cocoons of protection and scaffolding ready for some serious activity: Meltdown and Imagine, Unlimited and WoW, we look forwards to your breadth and some poetry and piano between.
The reception of the refurbished Hayward Gallery has been astounding.
The retrospective of the work of Andreas Gursky, curated by director Ralph Rugoff and the artist is stunning, and has received glowing reviews, but this shouldn’t really be a surprise. Gursky is one of those game-changing artists with a huge following. And showing and encouraging great art is something Southbank Centre has been doing for a very long time, and if you don’t get good at what you practice, then, well, why are you still doing it?
However, the outpouring of love for the re-opened building with its new services, new infrastructure, new roof lights and cleaned interior has been more unexpected. Maybe this is because we’ve been at it for a while and weren’t completely surprised by what it looks like. Maybe also because buildings, new or refurbished, just don’t tend to be seen as exciting, or to be news.
There is much that is unique about Southbank Centre: about its iconic concrete buildings, about working on a public building in a prominent London location, about having one of the original architects, Dennis Crompton, to talk to, about the spectacular depth of engagement that we have been able to have with so many individuals at Southbank Centre, about the individuals themselves, and the wonderful experience of press views, private views and the grand re-opening that the Hayward Gallery has just had.
There is also much that isn’t unique at all. Twenty six people at FCBStudios have played a part in the success of the project, some larger parts, some smaller, but all necessary. Hundreds of drawings, schedules and specifications issued and reissued, tens of thousands of emails written and read. Documents uploaded, invoices issued, appointments amended, taxis called, models made and amended, and everything filed. We’ve worked hard, sometimes for too many hours, through stage, planning and tender deadlines. There has been the ubiquitous value engineering process. Sleep has been lost and holidays not taken. I certainly had the odd long dark night of the soul, I suspect others too.
We also drank tea, coffee and the odd beer, talked directly and indirectly about small details, and large ideas. We presented them to ourselves, and to others. We drifted down the odd blind alley, no doubt much to the worry of those watching us disappear, although fortunately these were few. Even in five long years, time was often short. None of this is special, or unusual. This is how buildings are slowly coaxed into existence. Architecture is slow. There is a lot of ground to cover. It is probably rightly slow too, buildings do hang around. The concrete forms of Southbank Centre have been resting by the Thames for fifty years already.
So a thought. A pause. A toast even.
To the creators of all the buildings that don’t end up in the press, never mind the Sunday Times Culture section. Buildings that you can never visit as a user. Buildings that you may never hear about, or see photos of on Instagram. Buildings that don’t have re-openings attended by government ministers. Large teams of dedicated people worked hard on them too. Here's to unsung heroes!
Read more about our work at Southbank Centre here.
1. Hayward Gallery technician working on the gallery lighting
2. Hayward Gallery from the number 68 bus stop on Waterloo Bridge
3. Gallery 4 scaffold deck and coffer framing by London City Interiors
4. TRI Contracting Services terrazzo polisher at work in Gallery 3
5. Southbank Centre PR working on the reopening photos
6. FCBStudios’ Ian Taylor contemplating the light in a stripped out Gallery 4
7. Windell installing the new artists’ bar rooflight glass
8. Meticulous new dimmer wiring in the Queen Elizabeth Hall
9. Lying on the floor enjoying the sky in Gallery 4 in a quiet moment before the opening
All images ©Richard Battye