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Townscape: South Bank translated

English architect, designer, and influencer of the Townscape movement, Cullen presents the planning principles of which the South Bank exhibition was so triumphant before the permanent redevelopment of the area was undertaken

Originally published in AR August 1951, this piece was republished online in September 2011

The County of London Plan envisaged the development of the South Bank as an integral part of Central London. The temporary use of part of the site for the Festival has demonstrated some of the possibilities of the site and opened our eyes to the form this permanent development could take. On these pages Gordon Cullen suggests a translation of the planning conceptions (that have made the South Bank exhibition so successful) from the Exhibition to everyday London.

When the Festival of Britain has run its course the South Bank site of 27 acres will become what might be described as a planner’s vacuum. But not entirely, since the Royal Festival Hall has already been built, the National Theatre is to go alongside it and Government accommodation will straddle the upstream section. But these are zoning proposals and cannot tell us about the nature of the development. In the ‘thirties new building became a battleground on which the modern style of architecture struggled to establish itself.

The Government-sponsored South Bank exhibition shows how well this battle is now going. Today’s new building projects must become a battleground for modern planning. The first salvo in this new battle has been fired in this same South Bank site, and the preceding pages of this issue will have demonstrated how effectively some of the best principles of modern planning, or Townscape as its visual aspect is called, are employed there; how buildings and the space and floor which they enclose or bound are regarded together to produce scenes and progressions of emotional value. This article attempts, very simply, to translate this planning conception from exhibition into a permanent part of everyday London.


Entering the site from York Road at what is now the Chicheley Street entrance to the exhibition there will be a courtyard flanked on the left by a garden and on the right by hotel ancillaries such as grill room, ballroom and shops. The courtyard will be a drive-in for hotel traffic but with pedestrian priority. Interest at eye level (the lack of which renders so much of London a bore) is thus provided by garden, paving, shops and restaurants. The exit from this square in the direction of the river is, at present, a concealed narrows (see page 81) but is accentuated by providing a covered way in the form of a tunnel running between hotel and public house. This preserves the feeling of enclosure and at the same time emphasizes the point of exit.


A purely pedestrian area (occupying part of the present main exhibition concourse) flanked on the west by Government buildings and on the east by cafes. As at present Whitehall Court, across the river, provides the fourth wall of the enclosure brought more sharply into focus by the raised terrace which cuts out the intervening river. It is proposed to keep the Regatta Restaurant on the river front.

The two drawings on this page show the contrast of scale aimed at in this area. The cheerful and intimate nature of the cafes on the one side and the lofty, sculptural effect on the other.


It must be pointed out at the start that the proposals shown here are put forward on its own responsibility by the Review, and are not based on official schemes. The proposals involve the siting of the National Theatre right on the river wall. There are in fact only two possible alternative sites for the building: either on the river or set back to line up, approximately, with the façade of the Royal Festival Hall.

The latter position cuts up the available open space into two pieces when it would seem desirable to increase the sense of space on a small site by making one large courtyard and utilizing the space of the river itself. It would further have the effect of establishing a linear development along the river bank which may be desirable with a continuity of building but may not be so successful with the axial monumentality already established. If, as we hope, Hungerford Bridge becomes pedestrian, then a meandering causeway linking it to Waterloo Bridge at high level would bring the pedestrian to any desirable point of the site in all weathers. (An important consideration in the attempt to popularize the South Bank after the Festival has closed.)

The Thames-side restaurant would be kept, and approached as at present along the embankment, but under the overhang of the National Theatre. Also preserved is the Seaside Section, the only change being the substitution of shops for the exhibition displays. The courtyard which gives access to both the Royal Festival Hall and the National Theater, would be treated as a water square; out of the water rises the shot-tower.

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