I was born in London. I grew up in London. As a greasy teenager, at weekends, I tried to impress other greasy teenagers, turning up at the Southbank to watch the skaters beneath the Queen Elizabeth Hall; when I was 14 I lovingly produced a school art project about the book market under Waterloo Bridge; for years I have attempted to appear more sophisticated than I am, casually suggesting the BFI lounge as a venue for all first dates; and most recently, I wrote my BAHons dissertation about the Festival of Britain. The Southbank is in my blood, and yet these days I am beginning to feel distanced from it. I still love the buildings, the terraces, the view as I walk back to Waterloo Station across the Hungerford Bridge. But I’m starting to fear that the Southbank Centre has lost sight of the importance of the legacy of the Festival of Britain, the place where it all started.
In 1951, Britain was picking up the pieces from another devastating world war. Having recently created the Welfare State, with the public still living on rations, the government decided to mark the 100 years since the Great Exhibition of 1851 with a nationwide festival. Where the Great Exhibition had been a celebration of Britain’s historic achievements, this festival would look forward, and promote future British developments in science, technology, design and the arts.
In London, at the Southbank, modern buildings appeared, surrounded by open promenades and terraces. People from all over Britain flocked to stroll around the new public spaces, alongside works by previously unknown, modern sculptors such as Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. Futuristic structures were commissioned, such as the Skylon- a seemingly unsupported needle, hovering above ground, pointing up towards the clouds above. Immigration was a key theme after the war, and at the festival it was celebrated, with many people experiencing world music for the first time in their lives.
The festival exposed people to modern science, technology, design and the arts, privileges reserved solely for the upper classes up until then. Here, culture was being made available to the masses, and at a time when the government was under immense economic pressure in the post-war recovery.
The legacy of the Festival is still visible today. The Royal Festival Hall remains at the original South Bank site surrounded by cultural venues. Known as “London’s Living Room”, the venue was built, not only to provide modern facilities for the enjoyment of live music, but also to give Londoners a place to work, to create, to express themselves. Anyone can walk in to any one of the Southbank Centre buildings and set up camp with a book and a thermos on one of the many comfy sofas, or conduct meetings all day at a café table.
In the 1970’s, the buildings at the original Festival site were suffering from neglect. The area now known as the Undercroft, (beneath the Queen Elizabeth Hall), was dark, under-used and empty. It wasn’t long before small groups of skaters moved in. Over time, the skating community grew and the Undercroft attracted BMXers, photographers, free-runners, break-dancers, musicians and street artists. Over time the skatepark became a destination in itself. Visitors, (not only skaters, but tourists), came to the Undercroft to take part and meet the members of the community. In the true spirit of the Fesitval legacy, the area came alive with public art and creative expression.
Fast forward nearly 40 years and the Southbank Centre finally decided they needed to re-address the functionality of their venues, in order to make them more effective and, of course, more profitable. Great, ambitious plans were drawn up for the Festival Wing, and consultations with members of the public went ahead. A focus on education was agreed on, with the introduction of new spaces for workshops, studios and learning environments. The Southbank Centre was keen to push for better facilities for people of all abilities and backgrounds. Diversity was key, and the way to ensure it, would be to widen the range of programmed events, and to collaborate with local schools and organisations.
The proposals were pushed ahead for planning permission, while the SBC frantically began the near-impossible task of finding funding for the £120 million project. It wasn’t long before plans were surfacing, featuring large, commercial units, much like the chain restaurants and cafes beneath the Royal Festival Hall (introduced during the 2007 renovation). The skaters and many members of the public couldn’t help but notice that these new units were to be homed in the Undercroft, in place of the skatepark. A new, cutting edge skate space was proposed further upriver, beneath the Hungerford Bridge.
What followed was an inspirational series of events. The skaters and their supporters showed the world that if you are truly creative in your approach, if you are dedicated enough to a cause, and if your community is big enough and determined enough, you can sometimes win against The Man.
I have admired the work of the Southbank Centre and have loved those buildings my whole life. I am loathed to call them “The Man” when they are merely struggling to grow during extremely difficult times for culture in the UK. But I have loved the skatepark for just as many years, because I have always seen it as a key part of this same Southbank. The merging of street-art and high-art have always made it such a special place, and the removal of either, would severely impact the spirit of the venue.
The skaters were organised, and they put on a spectacular campaign, both online and at the site, in person. They came forward and identified themselves, and they asked people to come forward with their stories and their ideas. They got to know their supporters and kept them informed throughout. When the skaters found a way to protect the site legally by registering it as a village green, the developers knew they had underestimated their opposition. It wasn’t long before the project came to a halt. No amount of PR and marketing could equal the support for the skaters, from around the world and within the arts community.
Although the new development has been named The Festival Wing, I think it’s clear that the skatespace in the Undercroft has just as much right to be associated with the legacy of the Festival as do the official venues. This campaign has hopefully been a lesson to all future developers of public venues in London… People are becoming wary of the quick-fix, commercial solutions to costly urban planning, and it’s not always enough to post-rationalise an idea by sprinkling it with sentimental PR at the last minute.
When a creative movement grows organically out of nothing, it’s so important to nurture and protect it. Up until now, this is precisely what happened at the Southbank. Out of an environment built for the arts grew a diverse and exciting new community. The two lived side by side, complementing and often helping to promote each other.
I hope to see the SBC go ahead with their plans for expansion and diversification, but not if it means upsetting the balance between public and programmed arts at their venues. Thanks to the efforts of the skaters and all the public support they attracted, this hopefully won’t be necessary. As the catchy slogan for the campaign stated -“You can’t move history”.
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