Monday, 8 August 2011

Celebrating the Southbank

It’s impossible to be bored in London – if you have a spare half day to while away, you will never be short of mind-blowing things to do. What’s really caught my attention in London lately is the celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain. So much so that I’ve been twice now, and plan to go again before it closes on September 4.

The Southbank is one of the most exciting parts of London regardless of season. Obviously riverside, in it’s vicinity (even if not a part of the Southbank Centre) is the London Eye, a plethora of iconic bridges, City Hall, the National Theatre, the BFI, the famous Southbank Book market tucked neatly under Waterloo Bridge, and so much more. The Southbank Centre itself sits amid all this, and includes the Royal Festival Hall, the Hayward Gallery and Queen Elizabeth Hall. A mixture of architectural curios and monstrosities, the Southbank Centre is defiant and proud – and there are many arguments for seeing beyond the concrete ugliness of the brutalist construction and embracing the structure for what it brings to the art it displays.

Visiting the Tracey Emin retrospective in the Hayward recently, I had every opportunity to give the ugly building another chance and see what else it had to offer. It’s a clunky, chunky, raw and exposed space, and no matter how many of Emin’s appliquéd blankets (with heart-tugging messages of abortion and rejection) you display on the walls, they’re never going to be softened. It’s a landmark building though, and one that (since it opened in 1968) has firmly embedded itself into the Southbank’s skyscape. Like it or not, the Hayward deserves to stay.

Currently crouching near the roof of the Hayward (on the terrace above the neighbouring Quen Elizabeth Hall) is an enormous urban fox made of straw bales by Pirate Technics. First viewed as I took a bus along Waterloo Bridge on evening, I revisited the fox the next day in glorious sunshine and marveled at his size, his beauty and his simple splendour.

Further round the rooftop walkways is a display called The Lands, that features a variety of stone walls and piped in soundtracks to recreate the wild noises you’d hear if they were in their traditional habitat. For me, this wasn’t entirely successful. But they were located close to a glistening chamber of polished Welsh coal, which is confusing at first glance but rather pleasing to the touch and senses.

Back on ground level, the outdoor display that most caught my attention was of poems written on paper planes suspended in the sky on wires from a temporary structure up to the roof of the Royal Festival Hall. The display is intended to represent the former Lion and Unicorn Pavillion, which was a part of the original 1951 Festival of Britain but long since demolished. Utterly beautiful to look at and admire from every conceivable angle, this was without doubt the most stunning of outdoor artworks on show at the Southbank.

The Spirit Level basement of the Royal Festival Hall has been dominated by a free exhibition curated by Hemingway Design to create a vibrant collection of memorabilia, artworks, personal histories, models and memories from the original festival. Free to enter, the museum needs a good hour or two of your time to be enjoyed properly, and the attention to detail is overwhelming. The highlight being, without a doubt, the recreation of a 1951 living room, complete with all of the iconic fabrics used in the original festival (and many preserved today) by Robin and Lucienne Day. As an aside, I was particularly struck by the ladies’ toilets on the basement level (not a part of the museum, but a permanent fixture), which still has a separate, golden wooded annex for the sole purpose of women to touch up their make-up and hair. It’s a beautiful reminder of a more gentle time.

There’s more to the celebrations than I’ve had space to mention, and there’s more going on than I’ve had a chance to see. But if you have time in London over the next month, there’s nothing better you can do than head over to Southbank and soak up the celebratory sights there. This is truly a celebration of all that was great about the festival, and is a promise of all the achievements and performances that will take place there in years to come.

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