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Concrete and Cybermen

The Southbank buildings are iconic - but I never thought beautiful was the right word.

The Southbank buildings are iconic – but I never thought beautiful was the right word.

Architecture can be brutal.

A couple of weeks ago, I had a remarkable opportunity to deep into the bowels of two fabulous buildings – the Haywood Galley and the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre.

I’ve been to both many times before, for concerts and exhibitions. Both are now closed for refurbishment – and we had an opportunity to join a tour, with two National Trust experts to tell us all about these iconic buildings.

I was in for quite a surprise.

Architecture is not really my thing – so I had never heard of Brutalism (in building terms) – but I have seen buildings like these in many places on the world. Huge bare concrete boxes with no ornamentation or frivolity. A triumph of function over form.

Most of them have been government buildings built during the 1050s and 1960s – so I always assumed they were built as concrete boxes because that was cheap and easy and fast.

The concrete was poured on site into timber frames - leaving the wonderful patterns of the wood grain embedded in the concrete.

The concrete was poured on site into timber frames – leaving the wonderful patterns of the wood grain embedded in the concrete.

Not so, the man from the National Trust informed me. They were built this way because their designers thought they were beautiful. It was all about honesty. What you see is what you get – there is no attempt to hide anything behind a gentle façade. You can see the brutal strength of their construction.

They were built this way for another reason too – to protect them. Other constructions on the south bank, built for the 1951 Festival of Britain were demolished after the event. The designers of these replacement buildings did not want to see them so easily swept away.

The soundproofing in the around the ventilation shafts looks like straw covered with concrete - because that is exactly what it is.

The soundproofing in the around the ventilation shafts looks like straw covered with concrete – because that is exactly what it is.

And interestingly, the architects who built the iconic South Bank buildings were not highly paid or feted stars of their sphere. They were architects employed by the London County Council.

It was fascinating to descend from the public section of the galleries to underneath, to see the tunnels connecting the buildings. Even here, there is a strange beauty in the way the pipes and cable ducts are so precise and symmetrical. No wonder they used it as a shooting location for Dr Who and the Cybermen.

Underground - looking for Cybermen or rock stars.

Underground – looking for Cybermen or rock stars.

It’s not all concrete of course. After descending some pretty scary stairs into the main performance hall, I found the familiar leather seats where I have sat to watch so many great performances.

Not good stairs for those with a vertigo problem. Were health and safety rules different in the 50s?

Not good stairs for those with a vertigo problem. Were health and safety rules different in the 50s?

I didn’t know it then, but not only were the musicians tuning their instruments to suit the room, the room was being tuned to suit the performances – with polished wooden panels being slid out of recesses in the walls to enrich the sound.

I attended many concert here - and never realised there was a mirror ball hidden in the ceiling. They weren't that kind of concert.

I attended many concerts here – and never realised there was a mirror ball hidden in the ceiling. They weren’t that kind of concert.

It was wonderful to wander backstage and see the rooms where the artists relaxed after a performance, before being smuggled out through the tunnels to avoid the screaming crowds of fans outside. I was never one of those, you understand. Not screaming, at least.

The art deco tiles of the artists' backstage bar. What tales could they tell?

The art deco tiles of the artists’ backstage bar. What tales could they tell?

The two buildings will be closed now for two years for the refurbishment, just as the Festival Hall was a few years ago. The refurbishment greatly enhanced that great concert hall, and I look forward to coming back to the Haywood and the Queens Elizabeth Hall and seeing how they are going move forward in the 21st century.

By the end of the tour - and I had come to understand that these building have their own unique beauty.

By the end of the tour – and I had come to understand that these building have their own unique beauty.

 

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