John Penrose is the Conservative Minister for Tourism and Heritage. This month, he rejected a renewed application from the 2oth Century Society to list the Southbank Centre. And his department took the further step of granting a certificate of immunity for future attempts to list. This took place with the support of the Southbank Centre administration. They are keen to revamp the complex, and are concerned that listed status might seriously cramp their style.
There has been much talk about this issue. Architectural historians and culture freaks have been crying real tears of remorse over the site’s future change of form – whatever form it might take. Sixties brutalism has never been more refined and loved than on this prime piece of riverside real estate. It may not be loved by everyone, though what is? The fact that it is loved at all, however, seems important.
Aside from the issue of its architectural significance – discussions relating to Archigram, craft concrete form-work and maze like circulation spaces – there is another aspect which has been missing from the debate. The main reason for protecting the Southbank Centre is to enshrine its use class. In the current climate, if the land were to be redeveloped it may inevetably require an element of commercial use to make it pay. Older buildings that have a vibrant non-commercial use in the city are extremely beneficial, because they have already paid for themselves. For the arts to survive in such a concentrated area as the SBC, it is important that they can do so knowing there is no rent or loans to pay off – or adjacent commercial interests to acknowledge.
It would be virtually impossible these days to recreate the SBC without some kind of compromise, and for that reason we should keep it in its uncompromising existing form. A Grade II listing should be sufficient to protect the function of the site and its architectural integrity, whilst still giving the centre the opportunity to make the improvements that it seeks. Afterall, the same policy has been applied to the Royal Festival Hall, which has undergone a successful redevelopment programme. Do the SBC want to keep the other buildings on the site at all?