Project: Saving Southbank Centre’s 60s Buildings

This project is between MA Culture, Criticism and Curation students and London’s Southbank Centre, which is visited by over six million people each year and made up of concert halls, theatres, galleries, cinemas, a library and outdoor spaces. Its origins lie in the Festival of Britain in 1951, and it is notable for its strong modernist architecture. The project is in partnership with Southbank Centre’s Archive Studio and is part of Saving Southbank Centre’s 60s Buildings, a Heritage Lottery Fund project. 

The project launches during the week of November 21, and the exhibition will be on display for six weeks after that.  

Contents:

This is the second of three articles by students. The first was about researching and developing the project, followed by this second piece about the challenges and opportunities of delivering the project. A final article about the project’s completion will be available in November. 

Project Delivery

Heritage: A User's Manual 

Our project has mutated significantly since the initial research stage. We have had the pleasure of engaging with habitual users of Southbank Centre and its surroundings. Notably, we held a workshop at the Archive Studio on August 4, gathering dancers who use the cloakroom area at the Royal Festival Hall to rehearse, members of youth group SE1 United, and Southbank Centre staff. During the workshop, we conversed on the participants’ experience of Southbank Centre: their first time at the venue, their favourite or most iconic part of the building and, most importantly, their reasons for continuing to visit this institution.

We asked the participants to respond to archival material pertaining to Southbank Centre and, in particular, the 1968 opening of the Hayward Gallery and how this heritage relates to their lived experience of Southbank Centre. This video is a taste of our first workshop.

We had initially hoped to build a strong relationship with these groups in order to collaboratively produce material for the exhibition. While we have not abandoned this interest entirely, we have adjusted our aim. We face the challenge of engaging users to participate in our project within a rather limited time frame, and we are mindful of the fact that building relationships and trust take time.

In the coming weeks we will now initiate talks with a small group of dancers who rehearse at Southbank Centre with the hopes of producing a dance performance and contextual video installation. Additionally, in conversation with habitual users and staff, we will gather testimonies of the living heritage of Southbank Centre. These will be exhibited in textual form, as well as possibly forming part of the video installation.

Our programme will thus include archival material entwined with contemporary responses to Southbank Centre’s architecture and structure. One of our main hopes is to add valuable and historically relevant material to the rich collections of Southbank Centre's Archive Studio and Library, aiming to significantly contribute to it by recording the multitude of experiences of Southbank Centre.

We have now named our project Heritage: A User’s Manual, a title inspired by Georges Perec’s postmodernist novel, Life: A User’s Manual. Perec inspires us to maintain a transversal view of events and lived experiences to produce a vue d’ensemble of the interplaying roles of architecture, users, heritage, and heritage creation. The examination of the concept of heritage is of central importance in our journey to the accomplishment of this project. To this end, we are developing a manifesto on how we might rethink heritage and activate the past in the present.

For heritage is not a dead relic. Heritage is lived every day.

Research and Development

Here we are, at the end of the beginning. Last month, nine of us from MA Culture, Criticism and Curation began research into a curatorial project using Southbank Centre’s Hayward Gallery archives. The project will culminate in November with a public programme of events in partnership with Southbank Centre’s Archive Studio, a public archive space within Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre. 

The research that the team has conducted so far – into Brutalist and Modernist architecture, Archigram, contemporary collaborative projects, the history of Southbank Centre, and radical pedagogies - has brought forth various relations, as indicated below:

  • Technology - Craft 
  • Old - Young
  • Past Future
  • Hidden Exposed
  • Mind - Matter
  • Subject vs. Object  

It is possible that the divisiveness of Brutalist architecture, which underpins our exploration into the history of the Hayward Gallery and its archives, might be one reason for our interest in these interrelationships. Brutalism, and other forms of modernist architecture, deeply divided public opinion, as we discovered when we came across some press releases from 1968 about the newly-constructed Hayward Gallery’s aesthetic. 

These conflicting positions will provide the focus for our project as we enter the next phase, and as a result, our working title is ‘Gaps’, which alludes to the potential for exploring the space between these relational poles that we have come across in our research.  We are going to work with two generations of people who engage with Southbank Centre – one old, one young – to find out what may arise in the ‘gaps’ presented by the perceptions of two groups at different life stages.  

Over the last month, as we worked on researching and developing the project, some members of the group considered what made them personally care about the project, and what they thought was the most interesting finding from their research. Here are their reflections: 

Why do you care about this project?  

Azzurra Pitruzzella: Contributing to the memory of a building, making old memories alive again and creating new ones. 

Jack Thomas Taylor: I care about the transfer of knowledge and using an archive in a non-conventional way, while taking a moment to identify gaps for opportunities.   

Luis Manuel Gomez Abajo: I am interested in finding creative ways to relate different generations’ memories and sensitivities, building bridges and thinking about the future without forgetting the past through the language and possibilities of art.  

In your view, what is the most important finding you’ve made in your research so far?  

Lai Man Leung: The transition of Southbank Centre along the river of history, from the post-war period to the swinging sixties, (re) defines the identities of London and questions the meaning of art.     

Azzurra Pitruzzella: The number and the diversity of people who live and feel affection for Southbank Centre, and so how a place can be so powerful in putting diverse people together and creating new stories.  

Carlota Montoliu Hernandez: Personally, perhaps the most astonishing finding has been the contradiction of Southbank Centre being so hated in the aesthetic sense, when its purpose was to generate positive feelings through contributing to the social well-being of the public, with diverse cultural activities that aimed to bring people together. 

Jacopo Butti: I found it interesting that socially engaged art and community based projects tend to be top-down and not truly collaborative projects, which is why I have a particular interest in building relationships with habitual Southbank Centre visitors.