Touring the South Bank

Two years ago, almost to the day, we went on the most amazing tour of the Southbank Centre.  It involved donning high vis vests to visit closed off spaces and I loved it – an absolute highlight of 2015.  I can’t even remember why I was on the Southbank Centre website a few weeks back, but I noticed that they were advertising more tours and being the efficient nerds we are, Tim and I decided to combine this with a backstage tour of the National Theatre.  What an excellent Saturday.

We met our guide in a very peaceful National Theatre foyer where we were immediately given high vis vests again.  YES!  I now know this to be the hallmark of a brilliant tour.  There were about 10/15 people on the tour, a mixture of ages, quite a few Americans, but a nice respectful bunch who asked (mostly) sensible questions.  After hearing a bit about the history, we were taken into the back of the Olivier theatre, where crew members were going through a tech rehearsal.  I did try to make an effort in listening to the wonderful tour guide as she talked about the drum revolve and the fly tower, but it was so fascinating seeing the action on the stage.

It’s a beautiful theatre and brought back great memories of seeing Everyman there a few years ago.  From the Olivier, we went over to the Lyttelton theatre which was all set up for Jane Eyre.  It’s really odd being in a brightly lit and empty theatre, but you really get to experience the venue, rather than the performance.  We were taken around the back of the stage (where the photo at the top was taken from), saw the props all laid out, costumes hanging up, and a Henry Hoover ready to go. 
From there, we walked down the main ‘road’ behind the stages, visited the carpenters shop, and peered down into the props department from the walkway.  Even though it was a Saturday, staff were still busy at work creating amazing sets and props, including very realistic looking pizza.

The final part of the tour took us through the offices and dressing rooms, where we saw Bryan Cranston’s name on a door, reminding Tim that he has tickets to see Network, and enabling me to snag his spare ticket.  Back to the Olivier I will go in January.
The second tour of the day was the architecture tour of the Southbank Centre, sadly without high vis jacket.  The tour mainly took us around the public areas so it didn’t really add much to the one we did a couple of years ago although we did get to go into the empty Royal Festival Hall where some musicians were hauling instruments on stage for that night’s performance.  What a treat.

I was able to boast about my stay at A Room for London which I am always happy to do for a willing audience (can’t do it enough to be honest) but the rest of the tour wasn’t ‘backstagey’ enough for me.  They do have a bunch more tours scheduled for the rest of the year, so hopefully I’ll have a chance to go on the actual behind the scenes tour.

After we said goodbye to our tour guide, we went back to the National Theatre to try to catch a glimpse of something referenced on our tour.  We were told that the dressing rooms have windows that overlook a private courtyard and on press night, the actors all stand at their windows banged on the glass as part of a longstanding tradition.  According to the guide, you can just about see the courtyard from one of the outdoor terraces.

Off we scampered, and whilst we didn’t find the courtyard, we did find a secluded garden, great views over the south bank (and also people trying to work with two idiots running around outside).  Every time I visit the Southbank, I discover something new.

Switch House, Tate Modern

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If you have a thing for over-processed photos of concrete, then boy you are in for a treat.

Holy crap, I love the Switch House – the new addition to the Tate Modern building.  I’ve watched it spring up at the back of the Tate Modern over the last couple of years but could never imagine that it would turn out as beautiful as it has.

It had been open for about a month when Tim and I visited a couple of weeks ago.  We assumed it would be rammed so got there for just after opening time, but we had most of the space to ourselves – it was amazing.

We couldn’t have picked a better day to visit as the sun poured in through the windows.  We did look at the art – the Marina Abramović exhibit sticks in my mind for many reasons – but this visit was all about the building.  The concrete, the sharp lines, the sweeping curves.  It feels very deliberate and unapologetic, completely unpretentious, and like it’s always been there.

The floors become narrower as you get closer to the top, before it opens out to amazing views of London from the roof.  And an opportunity to be nosy on the neighbouring buildings.  I don’t necessarily recommend taking the stairs all the way to the top floor as it does get a bit constricted towards the top.  Also, it’s 10 floors.  Oof.

At the top, I of course had to take a few tilt shift photos.

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But my absolute favourite thing of the whole building was the staircase.  The smoothness of the concrete was just so satisfyingly touchable.  I’ve decided that any future house I own will have to have an epic formidable staircase.  I think that might mean I need to buy a huge Brutalist mansion, but it’d be worth it.

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Just looking at that shiny concrete floor is giving me all the feels.

Soul of an artist, hands of a master craftsman

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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.

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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.

Brutal Utopia 2Everything got a bit blurry with my photos as we were marching along briskly.  How I wish I had time to set up my camera properly.

Brutal Utopia 3There is so much empty space underneath the halls in order to provide a noise barrier.  And also to give atmospheric photos.

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.

Brutal Utopia 4The 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.

Brutal Utopia 5We didn’t spend much time in this room which was sad for Husband because the next part of the tour was the rest of the spiral staircase.  I really did think Tim and I would have to carry him down.

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.

Brutal Utopia 9I’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.

Brutal Utopia 10We 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.

More photos on my Flickr.