Tom Foulkes salutes Hadrian’s 2,000-year-old Pantheon in Rome, but quietly hopes the brutalist Southbank Centre has a somewhat shorter lifespan
Two-thousand years ago, the Romans created the Pantheon and it still dazzles me today. In many ways, this building represents man working in harmony with nature. It is a beautiful, graceful design, full of gentle curves. The technical and engineering skill displayed, the sheer construction, the logistics are mind-boggling. For the wonderful dome, they used
low-density stone to create a magnificent curved structure that is far lighter than anyone could expect. The columns in the portico are Egyptian granite – not from Cairo, but somewhere way down in the south. The very idea that these enormous columns were transported in single pieces from the bedrock of Egypt all the way to Rome is astounding.
At a philosophical level, this temple is also a excellent example of humility.
Pantheon means “all the gods”. Its creators were not arrogant enough to pick a single god to worship; they recognised the natural world was far more complicated than they could understand.
The depressingly awful Southbank Centre, meanwhile, represents a failed attempt by mankind to dominate nature. It is ugly. It is barbaric. It uses a new material – reinforced concrete – which is good structurally, but appalling for external use. However impressive and shiny the design may have looked in the architect’s drawings, within years it has become a dreadful sight; discoloured and brutal. The harsh, straight lines are completely unnatural. To me it seems inspired by the fortifications of the Second World War. The huge concrete bunkers on the north coast of France are almost indistinguishable in their design and aesthetics from the Southbank Centre. There is an exciting design principle in mimicking nature. I see that in the 2000-year-old Pantheon and I see its antithesis in the Southbank Centre.
Rome’s Pantheon was built by an unknown architect in the 1st century AD, during Hadrian’s reign. It is thought to have been built as a temple to ancient Roman gods and may have been used as a law court. Since the 7th century, it has been a Roman Catholic church. It is the oldest standing domed structure in Rome.
London’s Southbank Centre comprises the Royal Festival Hall, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Hayward Gallery and is the largest arts centre in Europe. Development began during the Festival of Britain in the fifties and continued through the sixties. Its brutalist design, alongside that of the neighbouring National Theatre, has divided Londoners since. In 1999, Rick Mather Architects was appointed to masterplan its refurbishment.
Tom Foulkes is director-general at the Institution of Civil Engineers