Serenade to an Icon
Allies and Morrison has restored the modernist harmony of London's Royal Festival Hall
Fred A. Bernstein -- Interior Design, 8/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
Few modernist buildings can be preserved exactly as constructed. Only the smallest and most esteemed—think Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House—are able to become tourist attractions, free from the need to adapt to changing uses and conditions. Other mid-century structures have to evolve in order to survive.
The Royal Festival Hall, set on the south bank of the Thames in London, is the sole vestige of 1951's Festival of Britain, which helped mark the emergence of the U.K. from World War II privation. During the postwar period of austerity, only schools, factories, and houses were permitted to be built, and a special act of Parliament was required to allow construction of the hall. As a symbol of optimism—the first large modernist public building in London—the Royal Festival Hall became an instant landmark.
Virtually every Londoner has memories of it, some of concerts in the 3,000-seat auditorium, others of social occasions in the large and light-filled public spaces. Then, too, the site is extremely prominent, across the river from Charing Cross station and in view of the Palace of Westminster. Preserving such a major structure as an "object" was hardly an option, but neither was obsolescence.
Clearly, bringing the Grade I–listed building up to par was going to require noticeable changes. The sprawling public spaces that wrap the auditorium—in part to shield concert goers from the sounds of trains running beneath and alongside—had become cluttered with offices that obscured the original dimensions and blocked circulation routes. Inside the auditorium, the acoustics, which had never been good, became even less satisfying to an audience accustomed to the higher standards of the electronic age. And there were myriad other problems.
Plans to add entrances on the riverfront, to widen the main stage, and to relocate the pipe organ could have led to protests. Yet Allies and Morrison architects spent two years and $225 million to reinvent the building—without once sparking a battle Royal. There are at least three reasons for the lack of strife.
First, the building lacked a single author. When Robert Matthew, chief architect for the London County Council, was given the commission in 1948, he turned much of the task over to his deputy, Leslie Martin, who then appointed Peter Moro to handle design development. And so the structure never came to be seen as a work by one person. (Changes to buildings by individuals are more likely to be controversial, with legal and intellectual heirs questioning the tiniest modification.)
Second, the building had undergone previous renovations. A notable one in the 1960's attempted to make the facade more august by cladding it in Portland stone. Those changes ensured that there wasn't one "right way" for the building to look.
Third, its jaunty, almost improvisational style seemed to lend itself to experimentation. Unlike architecture by Mies, with its inviolate symmetry, or Frank Lloyd Wright, with every detail contributing to a larger composition, the Alvar Aalto–esque Royal Festival Hall is asymmetrical, multicolored, and syncopated like a jazz composition in which additional riffs are welcome
Allies and Morrison, retained as "house architects" since 1992, rose to the challenge. The initial move was to design an adjacent building that made room for administrators, whose cubicles had been proliferating in the hall's formerly public spaces, as well as for shops and cafés. The reclaimed areas were then refurbished. One of the large glass rooms facing the river now contains the elegantly minimalist Skylon restaurant, named for the towering sculpture that symbolized the Festival of Britain—and designed by the firm of Terence Conran, who also worked on the festival site as a young man.
In the auditorium, Allies and Morrison not only reconfigured the stage but also gave almost every surface a makeover to improve acoustics. Leather panels stuffed with horsehair were replaced by leather-wrapped MDF, which is stiffer and therefore less sound-absorbent. Geometric cutouts in the elm paneling were filled with strips of walnut, simulating the appearance of the cutouts without their tendency to catch sound waves. Finally, the architects added legroom by rearranging the aluminum-trimmed walnut theater seats that Robin Day designed for the 1951 debut. About the only thing that wasn't changed was the boxes, said to resemble drawers hastily pulled out in a burglary.
Le Corbusier, visiting in the 1950's, described the boxes as "a joke—but a good one." And they continue to bring smiles to visitors' faces. The lesson maybe that, if a building makes people happy, they will want it to remain part of their lives, even if that means it has to change.