Southbank evenings

Festival Hall crowds

Festival Hall evening lights

A visit to London last week allowed me to spend time at one of my favourite places anywhere, the Royal Festival Hall in the Southbank Centre complex, beside the London Eye, across the river from the Houses of Parliament.

At the end of each day I went there for a couple of hours before taking the underground back to my hotel, just to sit in the café, to read, to jot ramblings in a notebook, to watch the Thames.

Places like the Festival Hall seem increasingly rare: a well designed, comfortable, generous public space in the heart of a great city. The ambience is unhurried, gracious, warm, open; there's no need to buy a meal or drink to access a seat (although bars and cafés are plentiful), nobody waiting to whisk your glass away to indicate it's time to move on, never a shortage of pleasant places to sit.

Festival Hall interior

The building is a masterpiece of modernist design. Now more than 60 years old the architecture still seems to speak of the future. During the day the light streams through walls of sheeted glass. In the evening the Hall is a box of light. The interior has undergone several revisions over the decades, but the essential design remains, and a few period details evocative of early 1950s modernism have been retained: Scandinavian-style wooden panelling, brass coated furnishings, table and chair legs tapering like slender cigars. Everything feels well made, luxurious, solid, durable.

I like what John Grindrod, historian of Britain's postwar architecture, says about the complex in his recent book Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain:

The South Bank and the Festival Hall have long been my idea of the apex of civilisation. As a timid teenager from Croydon I'd travel to watch plays at the National Theatre, rummage for second hand books in the stalls under Waterloo Bridge or hang out in the quiet cafes and drink hot chocolate (coffee being one step too far towards sophistication). [London planners] Abercrombie and Forshaw's 'great cultural centre' was the place I'd been looking for all my life. And the Festival Hall, beaten up, tired and quiet as it was back then at the end of the eighties, was still one of the most beautiful buildings I had ever seen.

The Hall is the last significant remnant of the South Bank Exhibition, London's contribution to the 1951 Festival of Britain, held to commemorate the centenary of the Victorian Great Exhibition (of Crystal Palace fame) and to seek to cheer a tattered, war-weary nation with a vision of a bright, technologically advanced future.

1951 South Bank Exhibition

Spanning the slice of the southern embankment between Westminster and Waterloo Bridges, the Exhibition is fondly remembered for confronting its rather conservative audience with a cluster of extraordinary structures straight from the pages of 1950s sci-fi. The Dome of Discovery loomed over the Exhibition's central plaza, a vast aluminium moonbase from a Dan Dare comic strip. The Telekinema - I like that futuristic 'k' - was the world's first cinema to show both films and television. And most famously, perhaps, there was the Skylon, a soaring metal cylinder that, through use of light construction materials and clever arrangement of near invisible support threads, seemed to hover above the ground. (There is an ongoing campaign to reconstruct the Skylon and restore it to its former place along the South Bank, to stand beside the London Eye.)

South Bank Exhibition model

1951 Festival of Britain programme

These novelties were removed on the Exhibition's closure - sadly there were no funds to move them to permanent homes elsewhere - but the Festival Hall remains, and retains something of the afterglow of the idealism that inspired the 1951 Exhibition. This was a high-minded modernism, a vision for a technologically advanced future from which all could benefit, of invention and creativity channelled towards the common good. The Festival was but one manifestation of the public spirit of that time, which also saw the founding of the National Health Service, the development of a comprehensive system of social security, massive investment in social housing and infrastructure, and the introduction of universal comprehensive education. The hope was that the communal effort that had won the war could be directed towards the construction of a prosperous future.

I'm aware I'm veering towards sentimentality. Efforts to transform Britain into the hi-tech utopia heralded by the South Bank Exhibition did not, shall we say, meet with unqualified success. The decades following the war did indeed see massive and sustained public investment in the nation's infrastructure, architects and planners competing with each other to design innovative New Towns, hospitals, schools, city centres and housing developments, but architecture of the quality of the Festival Hall was the exception rather than the rule.

And yet, though the postwar modernist experiment was not an unqualified success, it was at least attempted, and, as documented in John Grindrod's book, much was done to develop public spaces that all could enjoy. It's possible, I think, to appreciate what has been lost by surveying central London's contemporary skyline. The space age structures imagined in 1951 have arrived, but are for private, not public benefit. The fantastic towers of the City of London loom over St Paul's Cathedral, and a couple of miles down the South Bank from the Festival Hall, there's today's Skylon, the Shard.

Contemporary London skyline

The Shard

They are wonders of modern engineering, certainly. But they have a somewhat cold, domineering aspect, which in the case of the Shard shades into the sinister: I cannot see it without thinking of Barad-dûr, the Tower of Sauron in Lord of the Rings, or the pyramid-shaped Ministry of Truth imagined in Orwell's 1984. These are private spaces, carved into the heart of the city, fortresses for a very few: during my visit it was reported that private apartments in the Shard have gone on the market, priced £50 million each.

We are so used now to having to pay to use space in our cities that it's hard to imagine a time when the best urban architecture was open, designed for the benefit of all. Harder still to imagine that era of public-spirited modernism being renewed.