The following essay will discuss the modernist movement and architecture of The Royal Festival Hall in Britain. It will demonstrate several different elements of modern design combined with the fabulous music, art and drama that unified the people of Britain, post war. It will also incorporate the underlying relationship between man and building and how together they contributed to the nation building of Britain.
The Royal Festival Hall is a fine example of the technology and detailing of the period of modernism. Located in Southbank Centre the building was designed and constructed in 1951 by architects, Leslie Martin, Robert Matthew and Peter Moro to commemorate a century of the Great Exhibition and as a part of the Festival of London. The hall was built in just less than three years with the assistance of several young architects and designers who were inspired by Le Corbusier and Mies van der Roche and their fast pace sketching of modernist glass and steel pavilions. With the knowledge and skills from some of the best known architects of that time and the influence of modernity, The Royal Festival Hall was completed, “inside within an outside” into a “shape within a shape”, the exterior and the interior were no longer separate, it was one unified formation, a true monument of modernism.The Royal Festival Hall was not only known for its modernist architecture but for its unique abstract and modern exterior. The structure of the hall consisted of five levels, the ground lower entrance level, main foyer, upper entrance level, balcony level, mid stalls level and front stalls level. All together comprising of cafe’s and bars, restaurants, shop, book store, balcony, terrace, stage, auditorium, practice room, organ, change rooms, promenade and library. The building is a classic modern structure that is simply held in by glass, a display whose immateriality is encouraged by all kind of design plans, like the way the auditorium form is lit at night-time, or by the insertion of flower boxes on both sides of the glass. Towards the inside, internal vistas transform every progress, giving a sense of graceful space and openness, an appearance of expectancy to embrace the nation.
The exterior of the original Auditorium in 1951
Miles Glendinning describes The Royal Festival Hall in a piece of her as “a little unusual in that it was the focus almost exclusively of praise even during the 1980s nadir of the reputation of the Modernism. In fact, the history of its reception is essentially one of the successive attempts to appropriate its consensual prestige. That prestige stemmed, at the most general level, not from its architecture but from its role as a ‘soft’ nationalistic symbol of post-war revival, as the centre piece of the Festival, and as ‘Britain’s first post-war non-austerity and non-essential building.” “The times predicted that ‘the hall can serve the highest spiritual purposes of music in our national life.’”
During the years of 2005 and 2007 The Royal Festival Hall underwent major renovations; however the overall style and structure of the hall remained the same. Jonathan Glancey an editor from The Guardian newspaper United Kingdom explains how although ?111 million was spent on the refurbishment of hall the initial concept of modernism will be not be altered, the building will just be restored to its original fashion keeping the ambience of the previous years of celebration, history and the culture alive in such an important British icon. Glancey quotes “Don’t come here expecting the RFH to have been transformed into some whizzy, hippity-hoppity “iconic” architectural experience for the readily bored. No. The building has been brought back to life in a way wholly recognisable to those who first came to listen to concerts here when Clement Attlee was prime minister and ration books were still in belt-tightening force. Equally, the RFH looks wonderfully fresh and new. It is one of those buildings, from an era when most British architecture was too tweedy and austere for comfort, visual or otherwise, that still seems generous, welcoming, blithe and, in part, opulent.” (Glancey, 2007)
Natasha Goodfellow a writer for Home and Antiques made a statement in her article regarding The Royal Festival Hall “The hall they built used modernism’s favourite material, reinforced concrete, alongside more luxurious elements including beautiful woods and Derbyshire fossilised limestone. It keenly espoused the tenets of modern architecture and encapsulated a sense of both democracy and an incredible openness and generosity. There were no separate bars for different classes of visitor, no bad seats in the auditorium, and the large foyers – a revelation compared to the cramped lobbies of traditional West End theatres of the time – were pierced by white columns holding the huge 3,000 seat auditorium above them.” ( above statements clearly articulate how magnificent this building is, not only by its structural form.
This photo was taken from the Waterloo Bridge, post renovations in 2007
The Royal Festival Hall was built for the people of London, the bars and restaurants the hall were intended for everyone. Its contemporary design and choice of location smartly designed in a democratic space served all types of guests and offered “the broadest programme of arts and events possible”, from opera, classical music, films, dance and dramatic theatre drawing the people of Britain to attend spectacular events. During the months of May and September in 1951 over eight million people visited Southbank to attend the festival. (Mullins 2007) An open Foyer programme was launched in 1983 allowing day time access to the hall at all times during the day rather than only being open an hour prior to a concert taking place. This encouraged the public to drop in for a bite to eat or a refreshing drink at any time during the day and enjoy the ambience, views and atmosphere, The Royal Festival Hall had to offer.
The following is a statement made by Tony Blair, which appeared in the Gabion, by Hugh Pearmon, titled, The Royal Festival Hall, London: historic modernism reinvented. “If you’re British, the Royal Festival Hall is a part of your life. Everybody knows of it. If you live in or visit the capital, chances are you’ve arranged to meet friends there, in the odd and seemingly permanently-changing assortment of cafes and restaurants and bars that has inhabited it down the years. So did your parents and grandparents. You might even have made it into the period-piece auditorium for any one of an astonishing variety of performances ranging from symphony orchestras and dance groups to the world premiere of Brian Wilson’s psychedelic masterpiece Smile. And who can forget the sight of Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott not-quite-dancing to Things Can Only Get Better.” (
Early in the piece there were several complaints regarding the acoustics from the orchestra. Publisher Victor Gollancz, an passionate concert attendee, remembers his first visit in 1951: “The place seemed horribly raw; there was no atmosphere, no smell (literally as well as metaphorically) about it…”(Mullins, 2007) Regardless of these initial problems with the acoustics many thought the Royal Festival Hall was the best concert hall in the world, hosting several truly memorable nights.As quoted by Bernard Levin in the Times 1976, “We have both aged, the Royal Festival Hall and I. But I remember, and I shall remember no matter how many more quarter centuries of the halls existence I survive, the first overwhelming shock of breathless delight and the originality and beauty of the interior….. (it felt that)… we had been instantly been reported far into the future and that we were on another planet all together… I do not exaggerate; I vividly remember talking to an attendant on a visit a week or two after my first, and being told at the end of every concert the ushers were assembled at the top of the building and that they then, linking hands, move slowly down from concourse to concourse, gently shepherding from the precincts audiences that otherwise simply could not bring themselves to leave, so affecting was the experience of being in diesen heil’gen Hallen.” (McKean, 2001)
Novelist Ali Smith recalls her memories of The Royal Festival Hall, “One of my most vivid memories of the Royal Festival Hall is of being part of a crowd nearly taking its ceiling off with the cheering and clapping – at a silent film. It was the hugely celebratory second showing of Abel Gance’s brilliant Napolean, with Sir Carl Davis conducting his own fine score. Near the end the screen splits into a triptych of different images, each tinted a different colour, to make the tricolor, the orchestra played the Marseillaise, and something strange and revolutionary swept through the London audience, which stood up and yelled with excitement at the orchestra and the screen. I have seen several of the Royal Festivals Hall’s silent film events, with Davis conducting, including a screening of Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus, which as soon as it’s on a big screen accompanied by its full score, can be seen for the masterpiece it is. Just a couple of reasons why the Royal Festival Hall is a pretty special and versatile space.” (Mullins, 2007)
Rachel Curtis explains her fond memories of The Royal Festival Hall, “My husband always admired the architecture of the Southbank especially the Royal Festival Hall. He remained interested in the renovations of Southbank centre despite living in Southampton. When we visited London we would always go to the Royal Festival Hall to relax, eat, enjoy the music and admire the magnificent landscape of London. When he was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 37 we were devastated, but he always maintained his enjoyment of architecture and music. When he died in 2004, I decided a fitting memorial would be to purchase a seat in his memory. He will now be able to hear as much music as he likes in the splendid surroundings of the Royal Festival Hall. I visit when I can and remember with fondness our special and happy times spent on the south bank.”(Mullins, 2007)
The Royal Festival Hall known not only for its unique modern architecture but for its inviting casual atmosphere, welcoming people from all ages, religions, cultures. Here the citizens of Britain could come together and find similarities and – more importantly – differences, that they could celebrate through their art forms. Adrian Forty describes The Royal Festival Hall as a mutual exchange of seeing, It is not subjugated to some other purpose of the building owner – such as (in a shopping mall) to consume, or (in a station concourse) to travel; is it different from those places where, therefore, we see others and seen by them as less complete. At the Festival Hall, as stated by Forty, “the owner of the building is none other than the subject. Whoever you are, once you enter through the original main entrance at ground level, and stand with the space unfolding in front of you, beside you and above you the volume is yours and only yours alone. Of course exactly the same experience occurs for everyone who enters the building, and so the result is the sense of an equal right to the possession of the building, and in absence of any commanding authority.” (Mullins, 2007)
It has been made evident that the construction of The Royal Festival hall has contributed to the rebuilding of the nation’s spirit, through not only its modern architecture, but the inviting atmosphere and availability of arts, music and dance it offers to the people of Britain.
GLENDINNING, MILES. Teamwork or MasterworkThe Design and Reception of the Royal Festival HALL
MCKEAN, JOHN. Royal Festival Hall: London County Council, Leslie Martin and Peter Moro
London: Phaidon, 2001
MULLINS, CHARLOTTE. A Festival on the River
London: Penguin Ltd, 2007.
GLANCEY, JONOTHAN. “Pomp and Circumstance”. May 11 2011.
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