It comprises three main buildings (the Royal Festival Hall, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Hayward Gallery), and is Europe’s largest centre for the arts. It attracts more than three million visitors annually. Nearly a thousand paid performances of music, dance and literature are staged at Southbank Centre each year, as well as over 300 free foyer events and an education programme, in and around the performing arts venues. In addition, three to six major art exhibitions are presented at Hayward Gallery yearly, and National Touring Exhibitions reach over 100 venues across the UK.
Southbank Centre manages a 21 acre (85,000 m²) site from County Hall to Waterloo Bridge, and includes the Purcell Room, the Saison Poetry Library, Jubilee Gardens and The Queen’s Walk. It is located next to the National Theatre and BFI Southbank, but does not include them.
Rick Haythornthwaite is chairman of the Board of Governors of the Southbank Centre, and was appointed in January 2008. In April 2009 Alan Bishop, former chairman of Saatchi and Saachi International and Chief Executive of the Central Office of Information, took over the role of Chief Executive. September 2005 saw the arrival of Jude Kelly as Southbank Centre's Artistic Director.
The history of Southbank Centre starts with the Festival of Britain, held in 1951. In what was described as "a tonic for the nation" by Herbert Morrison, the Labour Party government minister responsible for the event, the Festival of Britain aimed to demonstrate Britain’s recovery from World War II by showcasing the best in science, technology, arts and industrial design. It ran from May to September 1951, and by June the following year most of it had been dismantled, following the victory of Winston Churchill and the Conservative Party in the general election of 1951. The Royal Festival Hall is the only building from the Festival of Britain that survives.
From 1962 to 1965, the Royal Festival Hall was extended towards the river and Waterloo Station and refurbished. The London County Council (later, Greater London Council) decided in 1955 to build a second concert hall and an art gallery on the eastern part of the South Bank site previously occupied by a lead works and shot tower (and which had been earmarked as a site for the National Theatre). It was another 12 years before the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the linked Purcell Room opened to the public. Together, they were to be known as South Bank Concert Halls. In 1968, the Hayward opened, under direct management of the Arts Council. The new buildings had their main entrances at first floor level and were linked by an extensive elevated concrete walkway system to the Royal Festival Hall and the Shell Centre. This vertical separation of pedestrian and vehicle traffic proved unpopular due to the difficulty pedestrians had in navigating through the complex, and the dark and under-used spaces at ground level below the walkways. The architect of the Royal National Theatre (Denys Lasdun) also designed the University of East Anglia in Norwich, which has a similar design, with pedestrians and traffic separated by elevated walkways.
Following abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986, the South Bank Board was formed to take over operational control of the concert halls. The following year, the South Bank Board took over the administrative running of the Hayward from the Arts Council. Collectively, the arts venues, along with Jubilee Gardens, were to be known as South Bank Centre, becoming responsible to Arts Council England as an independent arts institution (after transitional arrangements).
The walkway on the east side of the RFH, running along Belvedere Road towards the Shell Centre was removed in 1999-2000, to restore ground level circulation. The Waterloo Site (the late 1960s buildings) has been the subject of various plans for modification or reconstruction, in particular a scheme developed by Richard Rogers in the mid-1990s which would have involved a great glass roof over the existing three buildings. This did not proceed due to the high degree of National Lottery funding required and likely high cost.
In 2000, a plan for the South Bank Centre site was produced. The main features were
- a new administration building for members of staff
- the removal of access for delivery vehicles to the south of the Hungerford Bridge approach viaduct and east of the Hayward (by Waterloo Bridge);
- the creation of three new public spaces around the RFH (Festival Riverside, Southbank Centre Square and Festival Terrace);
- modification of the Queen Elizabeth Hall undercroft and the lower two levels of the Hayward to provide a frontage onto Southbank Centre Square; and
- a new British Film Institute building partly underground on the Hungerford Car Park site.
In line with the plans, between 2004-7 a new glass-fronted building was created, providing office space for Southbank Centre staff, as well as a range of new shops and restaurants, was inserted between the RFH and the approach viaduct to Hungerford Bridge and along the low level Thames elevation of the Royal Festival Hall. Between 2005-7 the Festival Hall auditorium was modified, the natural acoustic enhanced to meet classical music requirements. Seating was also reconfigured, together with upgrades to production facilities and public areas, with provision of new bar areas, the removal of most shops from foyer spaces, refurbished lifts and WCs.
Festival Wing proposal
In March 2013 controversial plans were unveiled for alterations to the Hayward and Queen Elizabeth Hall dubbed the "Festival Wing", funded by Arts Council England. Proposed is a new L-shaped building linking the Hayward Gallery and Purcell Room buildings and with a wing running parallel to Waterloo Bridge behind the Queen Elizabeth Hall auditorium. Features would include a glass pavilion, new arts spaces, a literature centre, cafes and commercial units.
The proposed alterations would replace the skate park which has developed in the undercroft, hailed as the birthplace of British skateboarding, with retail units.  As of May 2014, a campaign group opposing the proposals called Long Live Southbank has gained over 120,000 members.
In early September 2013, the Southbank Centre published three alternative design options (developed by SNE Architects, 42 Architects and Rich Architects) for a proposed new purpose designed skateboarding area,under Hungerford Bridge, 120 metres to the south near Jubilee Gardens.
On 17 September 2013 the architecture magazine bdonline.co.uk reported that "the Southbank Centre has had to put on hold the planning process after agreeing to review Feilden Clegg Bradley’s £120 million plans. As well as the skateboarders, other objectors have included the National Theatre while the BFI has warned that it could be forced to close while construction work is carried out. Lambeth council was due to hear the planning application later this autumn but this is now due to be held early next year."
The resident orchestras at Southbank Centre are:
- London Philharmonic Orchestra
- Philharmonia Orchestra
- London Sinfonietta
- Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
- Southbank Centre information and consultation about the Festival Wing
- Escobales, Roxanne (12 April 2013). "Skateboarding's South Bank home to be turned into retail units". The Guardian. Retrieved 13 April 2013. "Festival Wing undercroft to be refurbished and skate park moved to nearby Hungerford bridge, but skaters aren't happy ... It has carved a place in counter-cultural history – a concrete enclave on London's South Bank beloved by skateboarders that has appeared in countless magazines and films. The undercroft at the Southbank Centre is hailed as the birthplace of British skateboarding, a spot that has nurtured the homegrown talents of skateboard professionals such as Lewis "Chewie" Cannon, Ben Fairfax and Joey Pressey. The space is also used by BMX bikers and graffiti artists, and has become the urban arts foil to the high cultural offerings of the Southbank Centre. ... The proposals for the Festival Wing would see the undercroft replaced by retail units, which are expected to pay for a third of the financing for the refurbishment."
- Martin, Clive (April 2013). "Why Closing Southbank Skate Park Would Suck for London". VICE UK. Retrieved 12 May 2013.
- Fox, Killian; Hazelton, Claire (11 May 2013). "Can skaters save their South Bank home? - gallery". Retrieved 12 May 2013. "When skateboarding hit Britain in the 1970s, it gave an unexpected new lease of life to a disused space under London's Southbank centre. Now the undercroft is viewed as one of the best unplanned skate parks in Europe: thousands of visitors to the South Bank of the Thames stop to admire tricks being performed against a constantly evolving backdrop of graffiti and street art. But the Southbank Centre wants to relocate the skaters in 2014 to provide commercial space to fund a major refurbishment of the Festival Wing (the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and Hayward gallery). The Guardian reported that an online petition against the move has gathered 30,000 signatures."
- "First glimpse at plans for Southbank Centre skate space | London - ITV News". Itv.com. 2013-09-09. Retrieved 2014-01-27.
- "Southbank Centre releases design for new skate park | Skateboarding News | Caught in the Crossfire - Skateboarding in the UK since 2001". Caught in the Crossfire. 2013-09-09. Retrieved 2014-01-27.
- "BBC News - Southbank development: Designs for new skatepark released". Bbc.co.uk. 2013-09-09. Retrieved 2014-01-27.
- "Southbank Centre - the facts | Lambeth Council". Lambeth.gov.uk. Retrieved 2014-01-27.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Southbank Centre.|
- Southbank Centre
- www.concretecentre.org (Concrete Quarterly No. 72, 1968 including article on the South Bank Arts Centre - Hayward, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room)
- The Long Live Southbank campaign to save the skate park