The buildings that form the arts complex have accumulated, higgledy-piggledy and apparently unplanned, for almost half a century. First came the Royal Festival Hall, the only structure in this area that is entirely pleasing to the eye and suited to its function.
The National Film Theatre, like the Festival Hall, was built for the Festival of Britain. To the NFT has been added the Museum of the Moving Image. The NFT has shifted its location from within the Festival Hall area to the arches of Waterloo Bridge.
Between it and the Festival Hall are the unappealing brutalist structures of the Hayward Gallery, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room. Beyond Waterloo Bridge lies the Royal National Theatre, recently remodelled, though to little obvious advantage.
What we have in this area, then, are three concert halls, three cinemas, three live-drama auditoria and two museums (plus the soon-to be-opened IMAX cinema at the end of Waterloo Bridge). As artistic assets, these facilities are admirable. Visually, they range from the first-rate (the Festival Hall) to the deplorable (the Hayward-Queen Elizabeth Hall-Purcell Room amalgam).
Environmentally, the entire site is abominable. From west of the Festival Hall to east of the National Theatre, there stretches a dark, dismal, dangerous progression sufficient to make the soul weep. Skateboarders swoop around, sometimes just missing wary pedestrians. The area beneath the Hayward Gallery and approaching the NFT-MOMI entrance often seems full of menace. Together with the nearby arches leading to Waterloo Station, it is a paradise for muggers. The whole precinct looks like a set for a remake of A Clockwork Orange. Instead of being inspiring, a walk towards these buildings deadens the heart and arouses apprehension.
During the past three months, I have visited three major arts centres in Melbourne, Brisbane and New York.
The Melbourne Centre is attractive and welcoming. The Brisbane Centre, which like the South Bank complex, is set beside a river, is charming. New York's Lincoln Center is marvellous. Its two opera houses, concert hall, theatre and cinema, together with a nearby music college and exhibition hall, enclose a huge piazza complete with fountain. Artistic events can be staged in the piazza. The buildings are so noble, the vista so entrancing, that the heart soars.
London Transport’s attitude to access seems to have been inspired by study of the Duke of Edinburgh endurance tests
To a Briton, comparison of these three sites and the South Bank is shaming. It is deplorable that we have allowed this ugly, scary clutter to exist for so long without remedying it. The artistic events that take place in the South Bank spaces are often of superlative quality. The milieu is a national scandal.
Visitors have to be desperate to see plays, films and pictures and to attend concerts. They have to trudge through litter and, when it rains, wade through ponds. Homeless beggars stationed on the steps ascending to Waterloo Bridge can expect little charity from patrons desperate to get away.
Not that getting away is all that easy. The Lincoln Center has several bus stops and a subway station adjacent to it. At the South Bank, Waterloo Station is a long haul away and, at present, more inaccessible than usual because of structural works. On top of Waterloo Bridge, the northbound bus stop seems deliberately situated to enforce a long walk, which is particularly unpleasant in the cold and wet.
A complete rethink of access to the site is overdue, but London Transport's attitude to this subject often seems to have been inspired by study of the Duke of Edinburgh Award endurance tests.
However, it is the site itself that is in urgent need of a comprehensive remedy. If the Arts Council does not have the will to assist in – or, if necessary, enforce – such a remedy, then the government ought to take over. And fast.
What is required is a plan that provides an all-weather covering, at the very least from the NFT through to the Festival Hall. The menacing empty space under the Queen Elizabeth Hall should be filled in or fenced off. A new playground should be found for the skateboarders – mostly innocuous in themselves, but utterly out of place at the South Bank. An overall environmental plan should link the area right through from the National Theatre to the Festival Hall.
The Right Honourable Gerald Kaufman is MP for Manchester Gorton and chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee.