My beloved Southbank Centre is having a little rest over the next two years. Parts of it anyway – The Hayward Gallery, Queen Elizabeth Hall, and the Purcell Room are being modernised in an ambitious project. Tim, Husband, and I thought we’d take advantage of it being closed to sneak in and do a bit of urban exploration
By that, I mean go on an organised tour wearing flash jackets, and guided by two people from the National Trust.
I had managed to snag 3 tickets for the Brutal Utopia tour for the quite inconvenient time of 6pm on a Sunday (inconvenient for me, as I was in the middle of an insane 7 days at work) but it worked out quite well as the sun went down midway through the tour, giving the end of the tour a bit of a mystical quality.
We met outside the Concrete Cafe (which does not sell coffee) where we met our guides – Liz and Eleanor – and put on our hideously yellow high vis jackets. We had a quick health a safety briefing from the Southbank Centre advisor who instantly struck fear to Husband’s heart by saying we’d be walking over high walkways. It made the tour a little tense for him, but he still managed to get better photos that I did. Curse him.
The tour started on the balcony of the Hayward Gallery where Liz gave us a bit of background on the surrounding concrete. I haven’t ever appreciated the differences in the concrete in the different buildings, but I can see now that they really all very distinct. The pyramids on the roof that you can just see in the above photo are actually hidden by a false ceiling inside as they’re a bit leaky, but part of the Let the Light in project is going to restore them to their intended glory. I recently bought an Inca Starzinsky necklace, profits of which go to the refurbishment project which I think means I can claim part of the pyramid as my own.
From the gallery, we went underground to one of the tunnels underneath the whole centre. It’s hard to explain why being in a dimly lit, narrow tunnel filled me with such joy, but I was insanely giddy.
From the very bottom of the halls, we then trekked up to the top and into the ventilation room. More than anything else, this room shows why they desperately need to renovate – their air conditioning system is at least 50 years ago.
The centre takes air from the outside in a crazy room full of filters where it gets pumped downwards – not very efficient. I loved all the old pieces of equipment, the random buttons, and the straw-covered concrete walls.
From the ventilation room, we snaked through another dark corridor and over a metal walkway high in the ceiling of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. There were holes in the floor that looked directly down into the seats in the auditorium which I didn’t get a photo of. Biggest regret.
This was where Husband started to freak out, as we descended a narrow spiral staircase to the projection room filled with more old bits of machinery. Yet more upgrade needed here, but it was amazing to see the big old projectors.
We sat on the old leather seats of the Queen Elizabeth Hall and found out a bit more about the hall like how the walls could be adapted for different acoustics. We also heard a very creepy squeaking noise from the tunnels beneath us. Animal or ghost? We didn’t stick around to find out and made our way out into the foyer.
I’ve walked passed this foyer so many times and didn’t ever know what was inside. At the moment, it’s filled with awful plastic furniture (I say this as someone who loves plastic furniture) but the Brutal Utopias guide book has some photos from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. If they can recapture some of the amazing style from the 60s, they could make this space very special.
We then went down to the green room and dressing rooms. We were left to explore for a few minutes, but most of the doors were closed so not much time was spent here. It was very reminiscent of our ITV studios tour, so a bit run down and, well, crappy.
We finished the tour outside the lift for A Room for London, and for a brief moment I was overjoyed at the thought of seeing my boat again (after staying there three years ago) but we stayed at the bottom. We wouldn’t have all fit in the lift, so of course we weren’t going up.
Annoyingly, I don’t think we got the full tour as there was some kind of performance art group going on at the same time, so we didn’t go into the Purcell Room and it felt as though we were rushed through some of it. We did get a good 80 minutes of wandering around all these non-public spaces though, and it’s amazing that Husband and I have been both above and below the Southbank Centre.
I can’t wait to see it in two years time.