And so it begins

As work continues at the Queen Elizabeth Hall Southbank Centre, architect Richard Battye wonders what tales the buildings might tell of the thousands of artists who have walked onto their stages and exhibited in their galleries.

Copyright Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

I’m not really inclined to anthropomorphise buildings, but a comment from a long time user of the Queen Elizabeth Hall at Southbank Centre set me thinking about what these buildings might make of the works that have just started. He said he felt that someone should talk to the old Hall, as the seats came out and the services started to be dismantled, and tell it that ‘the works are all for your own good, everything will be back working again soon’. And this did make me wonder about the tales the buildings might tell of the thousands of artists who have walked onto their stages, exhibited in their galleries, hung from chandeliers, been banned for their bubble machines, and slept, and more, in out of the way corners. Also, maybe, a little about their creators, and what they think of the current changes.

Almost every piece of the buildings expresses the work of careful hands, and it really was hands, that came together to build them. The board-marked concrete that enables the buildings’ expressive forms, and places them so firmly in the Brutalist canon, is really the imprint of a timber building repeatedly built and un-built by over a hundred finishing carpenters, the layout of the endlessly unique faces with their centred bolt-holes drawn by a team of a dozen draftsmen. The close modulation of the finished surface achieved using two alternating thicknesses of tongue and grooved rip-sawn Baltic pine boards, the timber and saw-cut selected after trials and samples, all the joints sealed, and the boards reused up to twelve times. This exceptional attention to detail involving so many hands is hard to reconcile with a common public perception that the buildings were ugly alienating brutes. Southbank Centre’s decision to retain, refurbish and improve the buildings came at the beginning of the recent wave of new Brutalist appreciation and as shown by the National Trust’s successful tours, is part of wider reappraisal of the great deal that there is to love about concrete buildings. Although Burberry’s use of the just-finished buildings as the backdrop for their 1968 outerwear campaign shows that there has been a parallel appreciation of equal longevity.

The quality of thought and execution in the joinery that made the concrete formwork is matched repeatedly throughout the buildings, in the actual joinery of adjustable Helmholtz resonators that line the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room, in the now lost Jetsons TVs of the foyer, in the simple lines of heavy steel ducts in the attics, in the joyful plugging-on of the three sculpture courts, and in the separate frames that isolate the acoustic of foyer from halls and halls from plantrooms.

With the help of surveys and point-clouds, ink drawings retrieved from microfiche and software that works simultaneously in metres and feet, we now have a BIM and a slow-grown understanding of the technicalities of the eight chambers of duct 50 weaving their way from plantroom to galleries with such ease in the Hayward Gallery; we now know how the Queen Elizabeth Hall touches neither the wrap-around foyer that delivers its people, nor the ship’s engine room that delivers its air. All initially worked out in 2D on paper, a three dimensional puzzle of Piranesian complexity where the ducts are often bigger than the corridors they must pass.

Yes, all reasonably complex buildings need to have been well designed and then (if we are lucky) deserve to be carefully constructed, but so many corners of these fabulous concrete brutes reveal even deeper levels of consideration and craft. Even the chalk marked red-oxide frames of the foyer’s nineteen (different) acoustic pyramids tell a story about making that is giving us trouble - equipped as we are with all our 3D tools. That these beautiful buildings then went on to help an early Pink Floyd Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun, held du Pré and Barenboim at the peak of their youth, and hosted art shows so varied that a boating pond on a floating roof seemed normal, should not be surprising.

The endeavours of skilled people constructing a building flow smoothly into the practiced and honed world of art and performance. The show will only happen once; all buildings are unique prototypes. The perfect timing of the stand-up pre-empted in the perfectly balanced form of a double-curved single-piece aluminium seat.

But it is much too easy to over-romanticise the process of design and construction of the 1960s. To be fondly nostalgic for an era when architects drew slowly with pencils, gauges were sculptures in Bakelite, and construction still used the hands of the very highly skilled. Let's not forget there are drip trays as vintage as the roofs they catch the leaks from, records of at least one tragically preventable death during the original construction, and, despite sixty-six huge glass pyramids, very little success delivering natural light to the art below.

Time to fix a few things, let in some light and live up to some very high standards.

Richard Battye

Many thanks to Southbank Centre for the vision and the ACE, HLF and many, many more donors for the very necessary funds.

*Read more about our work at Southbank Centre here. *

All images ©Richard Battye, click here to see more.

1. Barbara Hannigan rehearsing the London Sinfonietta as part of The Rest is Noise in the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 2013.

2. Riverside back stage staircase in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Tea break in the Queen Elizabeth Hall attic.

3. Flying the Little Match Girl’s chandelier for Meow Meow’s winter show in the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 2012.

4. Chromosaturation by Carlos Cruz-Diez, Light Show in the Hayward Gallery 2014.

5. Queen Elizabeth Hall main ventilation plantroom, foyer supply heading out of the roof. Queen Elizabeth Hall main ventilation plantroom, door into the auditorium supply.

6. Queen Elizabeth Hall air supply to the back of the stage.

7. Queen Elizabeth Hall dressing room supply. Plantroom radiator and gauge on the Purcell Room air handling unit.

8. Original ammeter in the Queen Elizabeth Hall main ventilation plantroom.

9. Pyramid rooflights on gallery 4 of the Hayward Gallery. Auditorium supply ducts in the Queen Elizabeth Hall attic

10. Queen Elizabeth Hall main ventilation plantroom with all the plant removed.

For more details on the project see Southbank Centre’s website: