Some critics claim the South Bank of the River Thames in Central London has few redeeming features.
For many others the area is architecturally important, and the Royal Festival Hall especially so. Adrian Greeman reports from its first major refurbishment
THE Royal Festival Hall was the first major project of the late 1940s, opening in May 1951 at the start of the Festival of Britain.
But after 60 years the Grade I listed building is getting tired. The structure is sound but the spaces inside the building no longer suit its functions and the client, the South Bank Centre, wants to see modifications. These will cost £91 million, £63 million of which will be for the renovation itself.
Landscaping of the river walks and surrounds will bring the total cost to £111 million.
The work on the hall splits into two main sect ions.
The main auditorium is to be improved in both its seating and its acoustics while the outer spaces of the building will be substantially re-worked, particularly the foyers, which run from the river frontage to the southern entrances. The bars and cafés in these are to be relocated closer to the river, the entrances will be remodelled and new ones added. More changes will restructure the building internally and an extension will be created along the river to provide offices and meeting space for the hall's administration.
And all must be done without essentially altering the main building. David Levy, project director for refit contractor ISG InteriorExterior, which is in charge of the hall renovation itself, says: 'That means most of what comes out has to go back in again.' If it doesn't come out then it must be protected , and wrappings of fabric and cardboard that have been carefully placed around the exist ing finishings and fittings testify to the need for care.
The major work in the first part of the project has been the removal and reshaping of the building's interior where it wraps around the central concert hall.
'It's like an egg in an eggbox, with a heavier central auditorium surrounded by a much lighter structure of services and function rooms, ' says Mr Levy.
In the outer section there is substantial remodelling to be done, with numerous new doorway spaces, changes to stairwells and corridors and structural alterations. As is often the case, the location of beams and columns on as-built drawings are not quite as accurate as could be hoped, so careful exploration is needed, particularly in locating asbestos, which was present in greater quantities than first thought.
Essex-based demolition contractor John F Hunt has been on site with 30 men breaking out concrete, diamond cutting, drilling for new services, burning steel and manhandling broken materials.
'They have all been trained in asbestos and what to look for, ' says Hunt's contracts manager Dave Gullon. 'When we find it we make an assessment and , if necessary, use an enclosure while we get it out.' Safety is important for the concrete-breaking work, too. Mr Gullon says: 'We have three remotecontrolled Brokks for the breaking, because these days the dangers of vibration white finger are well known.' The Brokks are particularly useful on the stairwells.
The hall has 114 staircases, running in all directions, to service various exits and entrances. Some provide access for stage equipment and performers 'backof-house' and 12 of these are being converted to lif ts. Others will be isolated or changed around.
'We have to keep tabs on all th is, ' says Mr Gullon, complaining that he has 'lost two stone and worn out a pair of shoes running around since we started here'.
The building's eight levels include a basement, roof and a variety of half-levels and mezzanines.
Material has to be broken into small pieces so that it can be moved carefully through the building and its protected zones.
'You need to plan the routes beforehand and do a risk assessment' says Mr Gullon.
Then the waste is taken through hoist-served breakthroughs on the south side of the building.
'We also have a tower crane working through the roof on the east side which can lift out some of the heavier steel, ' adds Mr Levy. 'And there is a lot of heavy steel to come out and go back in.' Much of this is for the auditorium itself, where a 4.5 m-high space for the technicians and lighting equipment is being rebuilt above the main hall, and also for the old plant and ventilation equipment.
'The M&E component of the job is around £14 million in itself, ' says Mr Levy.
The technicians area can be extensively revamped and a £500,000 birdcage scaffold has been set up in the auditorium to support a temporary steel working platform above. The platform has tapered support piers, which leave the seating and f loor areas free, ready for the removal of all the seating.
The leg room is being extended to allow for the increased height of the average person since the war and will mean a loss of some 118 seats to gain 75 m more leg room. The bulk of the seats are supported on plinths and all will be broken out and manhandled away with block and tack le. They will be restored once a new ventilation system has gone in, which uses the modern pr inciples of breathing condit ioned air in around people's feet and ext ract ing at the top.
The seats and panelling are being restored but complex changes are needed to deal with acoustic problems presented by the 1950s design.
The orchestra often finds itself without acoustic feedback, which means players in one section are unable to hear what is happen ing in another.
Subtle changes are being made to the materials and shapes of all the elements in the hall, the most obvious of which affects the stage, which will be reshaped. The 'blast walls', which direct the sound outwards will be reworked to widen it; wooden panels over the stage are to be replaced with wingshaped fabric panels, while those in the hall will be stiffened or backed with other materials.
The seats will be positioned with acoustic ref lection in mind and the organ, rivalling in size that in the Albert Hall, will move back about a metre before being rebuilt and re-tuned.
All this is just beginning. In another 12 months the Hall has to be ready once more, restored to newness but subtly different ? and sounding much better.
PRINCIPAL CONSULTANTS ON THE ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL PROJECT:
Project manager: Lend Lease
Projects Architect: Allies & Morrison
Structural engineer: Price & Myers
M&E engineer: Max Fordham
Quantity surveyor: Davis Langdon
Acoustic engineer: Kirkegaard Associates
Main contractor: ISG InteriorExterior
Theatre consultant: Carr & Angier
Landscaping consultant: Gross Max
Lighting consultant: Spiers & Major