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  • Writer's pictureLucy Walker

A Brief History of the South Bank and the Southbank Centre

What is the Southbank Centre?

The Southbank Centre is a complex of artistic venues on the south bank of the River Thames

London's South Bank

Southbank Centre History

Over the course of the 20th century, the South Bank changed beyond recognition. In 1900, it was an industrial neighbourhood: the riverfront was dominated by blackened red-brick warehouses and the Lion Brewery, which exported ale throughout the British Empire. Overcrowded houses lined the crooked medieval streets, and the air would have been thick with factory smoke and the smell of hops and brewing malt. After the First World War it began to wane as a centre of industry; then came the bombing campaign of the Second World War, which left gaping holes in the district and destroyed much of its economic capacity. Ironically, it was this destruction which led to the area’s renewal.

The newly decimated riverfront was chosen as the site for the Festival of Britain, which was intended as a tonic for a nation left bankrupt and traumatised by war. The ruins were cleared; by the time of the festival in 1951, showcasing the best of British culture, science and technology, the area had been rebuilt and reborn. The blacks, greys and browns of the industrial South Bank were replaced by open space, bright lights and the primary colours of the festival’s decoration. Millions of people from across Britain flocked to the South Bank to enjoy this glimpse of the future. The festival’s success secured the South Bank’s status as one of London’s great public spaces.

The Royal Festival Hall is the only surviving structure from the festival, and was the starting point for what became known as the Southbank Centre. It was followed by a series of major cultural institutions, all built in distinctively modernist styles, including the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Denys Lasdun’s geometric National Theatre. The Hayward Gallery, with its Brutalist design, was voted the ugliest building in Britain when it opened in the late 1960s. Yet like the rest of the Southbank Centre, it is an icon of the post-war modernism which shaped the area that we know today, as well as many other parts of London and the UK.

In recent years, the Southbank Centre has again been at the centre of a discussion about public space. Walking past the concrete structure of the Hayward Gallery, you will no doubt have spotted the famous Undercroft skate park, which has a surprising cultural heritage of its own. Skaters have claimed this unused space, widely recognised as the birthplace of British skateboarding, as their own since the early 1970s – making it almost the same age as the Hayward Gallery itself. In 2013, the Southbank Centre attempted to clear the site for commercial use. Following a widely supported campaign, the Undercroft skate park was recognised in its own right as a space of cultural and public value, and its future has been secured.

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