Unbuilt London: A giant glass wave over the South Bank

When culture seekers walk along the south bank admiring the views and skateboards, they should do so under a giant glass and steel canopy weaving its way along the Thames.

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Just over 20 years ago, a design competition was held to revitalise the area around the South Bank Arts Centre, and the winning design to knit the disparate buildings together was to enclose them under a single unifying glass roof.

And what a roof it would have been, if rather unfortunately, looking a bit like Donald Trump’s hair style in silhouette.richard-rogers-southbank-03

Designed by Richard Rogers architects, the scheme actually harked back to the original Crystal Palace for its inspiration.

This great wave of glass and steel sheltering the Hayward Gallery, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Purcell Room was designed to have a regenerative impact on the wider South Bank neighbourhood. The architects cited how Paris’s Pompidou Centre transformed the surrounding district.

Although the glass weave overhead was the striking statement of the design, most of the investment would have actually gone into more pedestrian, but more important urban design, making access to the sites, and between them easier.

It would have unified all the disparate buildings into a single whole entity.

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Despite the glass weave winning the design competition, and securing £10 million is the estimated £70 million cost, the project was dropped due to indecision at the Arts Council, and the difficulty securing lottery funding.

The area has since been revitalized, thanks to a concerted branding effort, and the opening of the vastly larger pedestrian bridges on either side of the Hungerford Bridge a decade after the glass weave was proposed.

Various buildings have subsequently been refurbished individually, and thanks to doing so over a longer timeframe, each retains individuality to their design.

Arguably, the weave would have been the wrong solution to the problems being faced by the South Bank, and keeping the area as it is, as a cluster of various different buildings as opposed to trying to merge them into a single vast complex has helped it retain its unique aesthetic charm.

Whether that will survive the latest plans to revamp the South Bank buildings is still to be seen.

Sources:

Southbank Masterplan · Projects · Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

Rogers’ South Bank scheme caught in funding impasse

On South Bank: The Production of Public Space by Alasdair J.H. Jones

Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Third Report

Designing the Future of the South Bank

 

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