The Royal Festival Hall recently reopened after a two-year refit. The space inside hasn’t changed much, but has improved at the edges. Better flow, more intelligently spaced retail points, fresh white paint and fluffed-up carpets. The floor’s the same, the stairs are still there, the polished handrails and deep red walls as you sink into the performance spaces are the same.
So what, exactly, cost 112 million pounds here?
I mean, the refurbishment undoubtedly works. The space flows properly, instead of being crammed with a coffee and sandwich hell. Some disused areas, like the outside terraces, have been reopened and swept clean. The street frontage on both sides – previously clogged with outlets, making the building unintelligible at ground level – is now clear, and the Hall now stands as a piece of functioning architecture like the other 60s concrete mountains on the waterfront, the Hayward Gallery and Queen Liz Hall.
But I still can’t see how all this cost over a hundred million quid.
I mean, that’s not loose change. It’s one ten-thousandth part of Britain’s entire economy. And not even for a new building, but for refurbishment of one barely fifty years old. It’s not even an honest brutalist box like the wonderful Hayward. The Royal Festival Hall reeks of the 1950s, most boring decade of all, twee child’s building block headlined with the nastiest, cheapest-looking typeface in existence. From the outside the place stinks of boiled cabbage, spam and darned socks.
A hundred million quid to take some stud walls out and add some paint?
Part of the problem isn’t with the Hall itself or its architects; in a way, it’s down to the Hall’s success as London’s living room. The Robin Day plywood chairs – excitingly space-age in 1951 – were such a brilliant design they’ve been copied a thousand times, duplicated by the million in schoolrooms and cafeterias worldwide; the originals now look cheap and nasty, the sort of thing you’d pick up for a fiver at Greenwich Market. And take those ‘traditional materials’ demanded by the architecturally inept commissioners – who thought Britain’s culture vultures would expect red walls and polished wood, as in a West End theatre. The refurb has put a brave face on them, but they still look totally out of place in what is a MODERNIST building. Layering on traditionalism doesn’t turn Modernism into Postmodernism; it just makes it look silly.
A tenth of a billion pounds. Is this all we get?
And I say this as someone who visits a cultural institution at least once a week. The building has been given a fresh makeover, but I’m not sure the costs should even have exceeded seven figures.
A hundred and twelve million quid. Where’s the rest of it?