Bringing light to the Southbank Centre

2 October 2017 | By Stephen Cousins

Transforming London’s Southbank Centre into an arts venue for the 21st Century meant squeezing vast amounts of new infrastructure into the maze-like brutalist structure. Stephen Cousins reports. Photography: Morley von Sternberg.

I’m walking through a service tunnel under the Southbank Centre in London, scanning the concrete floor for items of clothing or memorabilia that might have been dropped there by Kylie Minogue, Shirley Bassey or Salman Rushdie.

This isn’t a fever dream brought on by binge TV watching, it’s a real underground tunnel, built in the 1960s to channel hot water from the Royal Festival Hall to the Hayward Gallery for heating.

The team

Client Southbank Centre
Main contractor BAM Construction
Architect Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios
Structural engineer Arup
M&E NG Bailey
General builders’ work FBS
Glazing, including roof pyramids Windell
Carpentry Atlantic
Theatre lighting Stage Electrics
Theatre lighting gantries IStudio
Architectural metalwork GT Coulson
Drylining, including Hayward Gallery coffers London City Interiors
Soft floor finishes, raised flooring, wood flooring Axiom
Terrazzo floors and walls Tri
External terrace surfaces and roof finishes Complete Waterproof Systems

The passage once doubled up as a secret escape route, used by celebrities to evade mobs of fans or in the case of Salman Rushdie, potential assassins, after appearing on stage at the Royal Festival Hall. If I look under a dusty pipe, will I discover a pair of sparkling hot pants, or a first edition of the Satanic Verses?

The tunnel is one of a number of architectural eccentricities of the centre, which is currently undergoing a £35m, two-year repair and conservation project to transform the Hayward Gallery, Queen Elizabeth Hall (QEH) and Purcell Room, with a raft of infrastructure improvements needed to meet the demands of 21st century art and performance.

The existing buildings are a labyrinth of corridors and spaces spread over 42 distinct levels, with precious few windows. This posed a huge logistical challenge for main contractor BAM Construction, which has to coordinate materials deliveries, access and security across the entire site, while ensuring that hundreds of workers don’t get lost.

Leo Amatino MCIOB, project manager with BAM, says: “Most projects have to think about getting kit from A to B – I have to think about getting it from A to Z and navigating all the spaces inbetween. We have 11 hoardings spread over four different levels, plus additional security measures required to – among other things – prevent parkour and free runners from getting into the building.”

Rebuffed by the mayor

The “Let the Light in” refurbishment has its roots in a previous, more expansive £120m project to overhaul the Southbank Centre with new roof gardens, a “floating” glass pavilion large enough to accommodate a full orchestra, and new retail spaces.

That scheme was put on hold in 2014, when the then mayor of London, Boris Johnson, intervened to back skateboarders who were fighting to stay in the undercroft on the eastern part of the site, where new shops and restaurants were planned.

Richard Battye, associate at Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, architect for both schemes, says: “Buried inside that project was the urgent need to refurbish the existing buildings, which have been open and in near-continuous use since opening in the 1960s. There were many M&E service issues, and because the buildings were originally designed for very different uses from today, Southbank had continuously tried to adapt them to make them fit for purpose.”

Work at the Queen Elizabeth Hall will add 1,000 dimmer circuits

The current project attracted £16.7m of funding from Arts Council England and £4.4m from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Southbank Centre raised funds to support the remaining project costs.

MEP services account for around 40% of the budget, and will provide enough new power, data and audiovisual connections to enable the venue to meet its mandate to deliver “anything, anywhere at anytime”, including live internet streaming and TV broadcasts.

The mass of wires and trunking must snake its way through over 530 spaces, ranging in size from tiny cupboards to an auditorium, yet have to remain largely concealed to preserve the respected brutalist architecture. “If I were to sum up this project, it’s wiring, wiring and wiring – some of the cable trunking looks like ductwork,” says Battye.

It’s also all about air supply and handling – the original supply and extract plant and ductwork has been stripped out and replaced with state-of-the art systems with heat recovery to maximise efficiency. Significantly, air flow in the QEH has been reversed to push out cold air from under auditorium seating and extract it via iconic funnel-shaped vents at ceiling level, to reduce energy use.

The Queen Elizabeth Hall (left) and Hayward Gallery face each other across a walkway

The project team, which includes services consultant Max Fordham and M&E contractor NG Bailey, worked hard when planning service routes to minimise invasive work. The buildings are immune to listing, but Heritage England and the Twentieth Century Society were nevertheless closely consulted as part of the planning process.

Amatino says: “Fortunately we have all the original structural drawings from Arup – also the current structural engineer on the project – so we can look at a wall, see how it was engineered, and determine what we could do to cause the least damage. The original buildings were fairly loose fit, so there was space to squeeze things in.”

A major upgrade in the QEH will add around 1,000 new dimmer circuits for lighting, and powerful enough wifi to enable up to 1,000 people to browse the internet simultaneously in their seats.

The hall has always struggled to remain fit for purpose. Originally conceived for use by a chamber orchestra of about 35 people, with relatively little dressing room space and few technical facilities, it has since had to host a huge variety of performances, ranging from spoken word to gigs by some of the biggest bands on the planet.

Pink Floyd played their first ever surroundsound gig there, in May 1967, but were banned shortly afterwards when a mixture of petals and soap from their bubble machine stained the seats.

A new cafe/bar is being introduced in the Queen Elizabeth Hall foyer

Two suspended lighting bridges were retrofitted in the 1980s – to provide adequate lighting for opera and theatre, dance. These have been removed and a huge hole cut in the ceiling to create space for a new retractable lighting gantry, designed to merge seamlessly into the ceiling when fully retracted.

A feat of engineering was required to cut the hole for the gantry through a series of structural concrete downstand beams that run across the ceiling above the stage to the back of the auditorium.

Arup designed an ingenious scheme of temporary works “used in a permanent situation” based on a steelwork frame, installed in the attic level, to provide structural support for the beams below while they were sawed through.

The work was carried out from the top of a giant scaffold, incorporating 23 articulated lorryloads of equipment, that stretched from the auditorium floor to the underside of the ceiling,

Moving the scaffolding into the hall on trolleys, from lorries parked on a rear service road, through two sets of double doors, then removing them post-construction was a logistical battle.

‘Mushroom’ concrete columns in the QEH show impressions of the original formwork

“Where on most building sites you can just pop out a window and push things through, here there are very few windows,” says Amatino, whose team has had to exploit a range of alternative solutions across the site, such as hoists, mobile cranes and an existing large goods lift in the Hayward Gallery, which was retained as long as possible into construction before being refurbished.

The Purcell Room saw similar technical and acoustical improvements to those at the QEH, including a new lighting bridge, while a new 8 tonne chiller was installed on the roof. The tight budget limited the amount of new-build on the scheme to 300 sq m, focused on a new artists’ entrance and bar on the ground floor, and a new cafe and bar area in the refurbished QEH foyer on Level 2.

The foyer features new glazed entrance doors, designed to improve access and views of the river, plus a series of inverted stripped timber pyramids, installed on the ceiling.

Pyramids on the roof

If you ever get a chance to see the Tom Cruise blockbuster The Mummy, look out for a brief aerial shot of the London Eye. In the background you can see two temporary white scaffold roofs on top of the Hayward Gallery, erected for the installation of 66 pyramid rooflights.

The original single-glazed rooflights were developed in collaboration with artist Henry Moore, but they never worked in the way they were intended. A series of leaks led to the installation of a false ceiling that blocked out natural light and reduced the height of galleries by several metres.

On the Hayward Gallery roof, 66 new pyramid rooflights mimic the originals

The new pyramids are designed to visually mimic the originals while improving levels of diffuse natural daylight and thermal performance. BAM stripped everything back to the original steel roof structure and installed a horizontal, double-glazed rooflight with controllable blinds.

Above this, replica stainless steel versions of the four-sided pyramids were installed, each fitted with two sides of white glass, for solar shading, and two empty sides, to reduce the total weight.

A grid of large white coffers extends down from the rooflights into the gallery space to control  sunlight and protect paintings from light damage.

“By removing all the unnecessary kit inside the ceiling, we gained about a metre in head height to create a much more roomy gallery space,” says Amatino. “A special spray-on acoustic finish helps modulate the acoustics.”

Elsewhere in the galleries, the original 48-year-old terrazzo floors are being removed and replaced, an original maple timber floor repaired and sanded, and external sculpture terraces resurfaced.Concrete surfaces across the project are being reinvigorated using a chemical product that’s left to set then peeled away, like a face mask, to remove dirt.

Left and right: A grid of white coffers controls the flow of light to the galleries at the Hayward

The Southbank Centre is revered for its precision-crafted concrete walls and octagonal “mushroom’ support columns, imprinted with the pattern of Baltic pine planks used to create the formwork.

“The original building has spectacular attention to detail,” says Battye. “The carpenters who worked on final finish joinery in the Royal Festival Hall, including the Grade 1-listed conductors’ dressing rooms, applied the same level of craftsmanship to the formwork for this building.” During the original construction, 120 carpenters worked full time on site to create the formwork.

Links to the past are a common theme. The original contractor for the QEH and Hayward Gallery, Higgs & Hill, was an early incarnation of HBG, which went on to rebrand as BAM in 2008. Amatino has been in frequent contact with retired employees, many now in their eighties, to query how things were put together.

“I spoke to one former engineer who looked after the marble flooring in the QEH foyer,” he says. “It was post-war, when marble was very expensive, and they only had about 12 spare pieces, so everyone was paranoid about damage and meticulously checked installation, which was carried out very slowly.”

It’s encouraging to see the same level of attention to detail applied today, as the dedicated team of contractors works to reinvigorate the Southbank Centre for use by future generations of artists, performers and the general public.

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