This townscape study explores the opportunity to build a new West End on South Bank while giving London the real waterfront it has been missing for the last 200 years
Originally published in AR October 1966, this piece was republished online in September 2011
Why new town? Because here, on South Bank, is the golden opportunity to build a new West End to relieve the pressures on the old. Before the existing West End is completely wrecked, development pressures should be diverted here, to an area absurdly underdeveloped considering its central position.
Where also, unlike the present West End, there are few fine buildings which must be kept. But, unless the chance is seized now it will be lost, frittered away in unco-ordinated rebuilding.
The argument that the area is too remote is seen to be invalid when you look at the map. The area of South Bank which directly affects the West End, that is between Lambeth and Blackfriars bridges, is contained in a great curve of the river with St. George’s Circus equidistant from the City, Fleet Street and Westminster and the Festival Hall no further from the Strand than Piccadilly Circus.
Again the shortest route between Westminster and the City is via South Bank. Distance then is no objection, but precedent and communications really are. However, it is worth noting that the removal of Shell to South Bank has already stimulated commercial interest there which is likely to grow.
As for communication, the important thing is visible connection. It must be linked to the present West End in such a manner that the river ceases to be thought of as a barrier. Also there needs to be a strong enough magnet to attract the crowds there as the Festival of Britain did in 1951.
If the opportunity is in fact wasted, it will be for lack of a sufficiently bold conception of what it might become. Piecemeal rebuilding will then obstruct future opportunities and high building, not directed to any overall effect, wreck it as urban landscape.
But another danger is the over-emphasis on culture. Zoned as a ‘cultural centre’ by the GLC, the riverside could easily become too serious and too stodgy, a perch for culture vultures only.
This would be a pity, as for centuries South Bank was London’s pleasure ground and it could be so again. The success of the Festival of Britain showed that. Then, for a brief season, the whole place was literally set alight, the gaiety irresistible with bands, gay crowds and light-hearted buildings brilliantly set against a changing backdrop of the river.
This set the pace, giving high hopes for the future of South Bank: hopes so far unrealized. As long ago as 1949 Gordon Cullen foresaw the danger that strict zoning might turn this into ‘a cultural centre enveloped nightly in gloom’ if the vitality injected by the forthcoming.
Festival was not maintained. Again, in 1951, he showed how this could be avoided, using the ideas thrown up by the Festival in a more permanent form. Today these lessons seem to have been forgotten. Surely it is time to relearn them.
The main object must be to bring the South Bank really within the orbit of the West End. With sky-signs advertising its attractions across the river it should contain theatres, dance halls, exhibitions, restaurants, bowling alleys, pubs, sports arenas, pleasure gardens, bandstands, the lot; reached from the river by gay landing stages and waterside piers. Also there should be plenty of houses for people who want a cosmopolitan life near the centre of London.
However, only tackled in a big way can this be made to work, so formidable are the traffic problems. Indeed, it seems clear that this is a case for rebuilding on a multilevel system, with complete segregation of people above the traffic, not the halfhearted measures that no one bothers to use.
With few buildings which must be preserved, unlike the existing West End, here is the chance to do things on a sufficiently large scale (learning from the draughty mistakes of Route 11 and the traffic domination of Elephant and Castle).
Waterloo station seems to be the key to all this. At the centre of the river’s curve, its platforms are already at a raised level and even now, if you know how, you can walk above the traffic from the station to the opposite side of the river. (And to see how cleanly this can be done, look at the bridge spanning between buildings across York Road.)
It is not difficult, then, to imagine Waterloo redeveloped as a giant transport interchange, possibly combined with a new Charing Cross station moved south of the river and with travelator links to the Strand, as Professor Buchanan has suggested.
The new combined station would have concourses, squares and a network of pedestrian spaces lined with shops at the present platform level (i.e. above the traffic) and rising from them high towers of offices and flats. In fact, office buildings, rightly discouraged elsewhere in central London, could well be encouraged here where secondary transport would be unnecessary.
The river must be the starting point in talking about the South Bank as townscape, for here are the most important open views in London, views which in some cases have already been sadly marred by the mad folly of allowing high building near St. Paul’s.
This has reduced the splendid dome in some cases (as seen from Hungerford Bridge, for instance) to merely one incident among many. Enough to make Canaletto weep. But if, for instance, you look across to South Bank from Victoria Embankment in front of the Temple you see a stretch of riverside crying out for attention.
Today it is just a dreary mess of unrelated stores, warehouses and sheds with the ungainly bulk of Shell rearing up on the right like some giant’s wardrobe dumped down on Thameside; the whole scene as inspiring as cold porridge. Yet it is a magnificent site right opposite Somerset House, one of the finest buildings in London.
Today, it looks more like Tilbury. But this stretch of river could look very different with a concentration of new building such as we have described; perhaps as shown in, a shallow pyramid of towers, the highest over Waterloo station and along Waterloo Road and with multi-level lower buildings terracing down to the Thames.
The foreshore would be alive with entertainments of all kinds closely linked to the river with its jetties and pleasure craft. This concentration of high towers at Waterloo in the centre of the river bend would also work visually from all angles up and down stream and not obstruct the remaining views of St. Paul’s. Also the now disruptive vertical of Shell could be neutralized, absorbed in the general massing.
But the effectiveness of any attempt to revive the South Bank will depend largely on the closeness with which it can be linked to the existing West End. The links must seem inevitable and inviting.
For example, Hungerford bridge, the present foot route to the Festival Hall, is today as dismal and uninviting as it could be – a bleak catwalk on the side of a railway bridge, so narrow that two people can scarcely pass.
But this bridge is in an important strategic position, for it points straight at the heart of the West End, at Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus. The present structure, an eyesore anyway, should be replaced in such a way as to offer a direct pedestrian link between the Strand, South Bank riverside and Waterloo station.
Broad and lined with shops, cafes and pubs, it should be a street crossing the river, and with a restaurant in the middle giving splendid views up and down river. It could be glazed against the weather and its form would depend on the transport needs (5 A and B show in diagram two versions, with and without the railway).
If Charing Cross station were moved to South Bank, then a travelator system would be incorporated in the bridge for rapid cross-river transit, with wide footpaths for more leisurely walkers.
Such a broad high-level connection, together with the terraces of the proposed Opera House, would help to break the seemingly impassable barrier created by the Shell complex. But the bridge structure must not be so bulky as to obstruct the important river views to Parliament and St. Paul’s.
SOUTH BANK RIVERSIDE
Here is the chance to give London a real waterfront, something missing for the last 200 years. However, south of Westminster Bridge the rebuilding of St. Thomas’s Hospital needs careful watching. The existing buildings have a fine skyline and present a quiet and civilized frontage of repetitive court and wing to the river.
They are also good cross-river neighbours to the Houses of Parliament. But the design for the new hospital suggests an attempt to cram far too much on to a limited site and in consequence the sheer bulk of building right on the riverside is likely to overpower the Palace of Westminster opposite.
North of Westminster Bridge, the stretch which most concerns us here, the danger is that having rightly kept the roads away from the river, unlike on the Victoria Embankment opposite, and so made a traffic-free river walk possible, the GLC will end up by making it all too polite; just chunks of building standing well back from an over-wide promenade.
This has happened already between Westminster and Waterloo bridges and it looks as though the same treatment may be intended right up to Blackfriars. This must not happen. Today, when you come down from Westminster Bridge, the heart chilling dreariness of the promenade in front of County Hall is like bureaucracy personified – no joy anywhere.
But no matter if that comes later as it did in 1951 when the great space next door, vacant ever since, was filled with people and gay with lights. Today it is just a respectable overwide promenade. This is the site of the National Theatre and Opera House and Denys Lasdun’s design for them suggests a brilliant solution to a difficult problem.
Faced with building directly in front of Shell, what do you do? Wisely, instead of trying to compete with the great, soulless office cliffs and tower, he has used them as foil to his multi-terraced composition, which has a strong but lively facade to the river. The Opera House has been shelved but is an essential part of the design, for as townscape the theatre will not work without its mirror image.
But the river front itself needs more interest than the present featureless wall; and this might be provided by a large entertainment pier and boat station running through beneath Hungerford Bridge and along in front of the Festival Hall. Placed directly opposite Charing Cross, the magnet needs to be at full charge.
Under Hungerford Bridge you come out in front of the Royal Festival Hall and the new Recital Hall and Art Gallery which are now building. They are impressive buildings well linked by a terrace on massive columns and the ramps and steps are bold and imaginative. But still the promenade runs, wide as a race track, in front of them and by now you begin to feel the strain – a certain bleakness, especially in our climate.
Until recently this was the site of six cantilevered lookout platforms (designed by Eric Brown and Peter Chamberlin for the Festival) which sailed gaily out over the river: light elegant structures in contrast with the permanent buildings behind, they sounded just the right carefree note that was needed. But the guardians of ‘culture’ have won and the platforms have gone.
SENSE OF RIVER
But it is this sense of river, a feeling of intimate contact with boats, watermen and gulls, which people want, and those lookout platforms were one way of expressing it. Apart from piers and jetties there are many other ways in which the necessary immediacy can be captured. Sketches 6-8 show three.
One way is to bring buildings out over the river so that the walk passes underneath them. From above you have the sensation of being afloat, while below there is shelter (glazed or open) enclosure replaces exposure. (Remember the 1951 Riverside Restaurant).
Elsewhere pedestrian squares might be raised over the traffic and bounded by terrace houses overlooking the river, with slot views down to it; a slice of river brought into the town.
The river walk could continue by the waterside but steps would lead up to the contrasting enclosure of the squares. Again, the river could be indented to form small protected harbours, dramatized by the immediate juxtaposition of large buildings.
Dredging would be necessary or some form of boom to retain the water at low tide, but the effect could be splendid (as at Queenhithe Dock east of Blackfriars Bridge, the nearest thing to Venice in London).
Here the river walk is shown passing through the colonnade of a theatre with steps down to the water. By such means the Thames would be possessed by the riverside walker instead of remaining remote and tamed beyond a sheer, monotonous wall.