The idea of turning the north bank of the Thames into a cultural centre to rival the south is a good idea that probably won’t happen, for these reasons …
It’s good to hear that MacCormac Jamieson Prichard, one of Britain’s more thoughtful architectural practices, has won a competition to suggest how one might put the South Bank on the north bank. But what are the chances of anything coming from this initiative?
Well, it’s impossible to overestimate the importance of the client to the successful procurement of major projects of this kind. It’s no accident that the lottery buildings that first caught the public imagination were those for clients that knew what they were doing. Thousands of hours’ work, for a start. The trustees of the Tate Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, Somerset House, the Royal Opera House and the rest all had a worked out idea of what they wanted, so when the National Lottery’s fairy godmother sprung into being they were all in there with their hands out, faster than solicitors in a building dispute.
You don’t have to have a large institution in the saddle. I once worked for the architect Theo Crosby, one of whose clients was Sam Wanamaker. It took the two of them the best part of 25 years to bring the Globe Theatre to Southwark. This point is not confined to cultural schemes. It used to be the case that a hospital would start out as the career ambition of an inspired surgeon, and the whole emphasis would be devoted to the smooth running of operating theatres, surgical wards, post-op
treatment centres and the like. Unfortunately, by the time the project had reached the construction stage, that surgeon had retired and the client who was now pushing the project along was a dedicated holistic physician who wanted the building replanned with the emphasis on outpatient clinics, diagnostic centres and district nursing accommodation.
The Millennium Dome is a great example of what happens when a cultural project is brought into being without a proper client. For a while the architects and engineers pushed the project along, and for a while it caught the imagination of the world. This interest stopped at handover when the architects and builders were paid off and it became apparent how confused the powers were about what constituted the essence of Britannia. This turned out to be sponsored corporate sideshows and that awful circus.
So, the prognosis for the North Bank scheme depends on the effectiveness of London mayor Ken Livingstone. This does not fill me with joy. For one thing, we don’t seem able to make the South Bank we’ve got work. Every 10 years or so someone has a go, but nobody seems able to push the button. It may be a case of “the best is the enemy of the good”, or more likely it’s because it has to pay its way. Our misadventure in Iraq doesn’t have to pay its way, so why should regenerating the most depressing cultural black spot in Europe’s biggest city? You need wellington boots these days just to walk across the concrete links to the Hayward.
It takes us 10 years to rebuild a football stadium in the exact place where there has always been one
Then there is the example of the Olympic bid.
One of the things that occurs to me when I see the mayor’s office spending my money on posters advertising the bid is that if it takes GB plc 10 years to rebuild a football stadium in the exact place where there has been a football stadium for the best part of a century, how long is it going to take us to build an entire Olympic village in an unspecified part of an east London swamp? To be fair, the blame for this does not rest entirely with Livingstone. What the bid, London and the whole country need is an integrated transport policy (and that doesn’t mean a 40 ft long bus integrated with another by means of giant rubber concertina).
In the absence of committed individual with the will and tenacity to make it happen, the only way it will happen is when you find out that its funded by a brewery-leisure consortium whose coffers are swollen by selling kiddie vodka to binge-drinking teenagers, and that behind a half-a-hectare facade of tasteful MJP arts centre lurks 5 ha of non-stop lap-dancing and 24/7 LCD virtual reality gambling for all the family.
Gus Alexander runs his own architectural practice in Clerkenwell, London