Over six million people visit London’s Southbank Centre every year: attracted by the mix of cultural venues and eateries, as well as the opportunity to experience a true icon of modern architecture. But the original Brutalist buildings had suffered heavily from 50 years of constant use.
The company which had been the main contractor on the original project in the late 1960s eventually became part of BAM in 2008: so winning the refurbishment contract was particularly fitting. This was a great opportunity to use 21st century construction technology and expertise to transform a 60s icon into a series of venues fit for the modern era.
The Southbank Centre’s vision for the refurbishment focused on bringing new light into the original spaces
The whole ethos of the restoration project revolved around the Southbank Centre’s aim to ‘Let the light in’. For example, the original, distinctive glazed roof pyramids on the Hayward Gallery – designed in collaboration with sculptor Henry Moore – had never worked as intended. To overcome many problems, including, numerous leaks, they had long since been covered internally by a false ceiling that reduced the height of the galleries by several metres.
The refurbishment involved fundamentally redesigning and reconstructing the pyramids to fulfil their original purpose: to flood the upper galleries with natural light. Modern construction methods and engineering enabled a pioneering and inspiring architectural idea to finally become a practical reality.
The foyer of the Centre – once enclosed with concrete slabs – was opened up to the Thames with a new series of glazed panels.
And the artists’ entrance and bar for the Queen Elizabeth Hall was relocated and rebuilt, to create a new light-filled space that provides a fitting welcome for the prestigious performers who now come to the venue from around the globe.
Hidden infrastructure for the Internet age
Around 40% of the budget for the project was used to deliver largely unseen improvements. New power, data and audiovisual connections will enable the Southbank
Centre to keep its promise to deliver “anything, anywhere at anytime”, including live Internet streaming and TV broadcasts.
Many thousands of metres of cabling and wires had to be hidden away in hundreds of different spaces, to maintain the clean lines of the brutalist architecture.
The entire air conditioning infrastructure was stripped out and replaced with state-of-the-art systems that massively reduce the amount of energy needed to maintain the comfort of audience and performers alike.
Navigating the labyrinth
In practical terms, the refurbishment was a massive logistical challenge for BAM. Co-ordinating access and security across the whole site was an assignment in itself. The hundreds of contractors on site had to find their way through a maze of corridors and spaces across many different levels – few of them with windows to the outside world – without getting lost.
The lack of windows and openings to the outside world also complicated the delivery of materials. So BAM's project management team had to come up with a range of alternatives using mobile cranes, hoists and the old goods lift in the Hayward Gallery among other access methods.
Respecting the past
Throughout the project, the BAM-led team maintained links with their predecessors: both in spirit and more literally. For example, the team had access to the original structural drawings from Arup – also the structural engineer on this project – which helped them to determine how to carry out refurbishment tasks with the least risk to the original structure.
And BAM Project Manager, Leo Amatino, often made contact with retired employees, many of them in their 80s, to glean vital snippets of knowledge about the detail of construction.
The resulting restoration, unveiled to widespread acclaim, proved that modernist architecture really can combine form and function for the 21st century… as long as it is handled with the same kind of respect and care originally applied by the craftspeople that built it.