South Bank Centre

IAN COLLINS After a £100m makeover of its best and brightest asset, London's South Bank is set to rival Paris as an artistic, cultural and social centre - and to make the much-loved and long-lost Festival of Britain a permanent attraction. Ian Collins hails a ravishing revamp.

IAN COLLINS

While many cringed at the millennium as marked by the Millennium Dome, and others among us wince at the prospect of the 2012 Olympic Games bringing a teeming London to a standstill, there are legions who still recall the Festival of Britain as one of the highlights of their lives.

Rising from the rubble of war and the dismal era of restraint and rationing, the 1951 gala burst upon a depressed nation in a surge of colour and energy and optimism - a firework rocket aimed at a better, brighter future. This was to be a country of fun and freedom as well as hard slog.

While far too much of the South Bank pleasure-ground on which the festival was centred was dismantled and destroyed, the Royal Festival Hall continued to loom large and lovely - a sparkling white beacon alongside the grey and grimy concrete of later arts flagships including the Hayward Gallery and National Theatre. (The latter was at least gorgeous on the inside; the former was hideous both without and within.)

The RFH, rapidly dubbed the People's Palace, was a showcase for new design by talents such as Lucienne and Robin Day (nothing to do with the telly interrogator with the silly tie), Peter Moro, Leslie Martin, Ernest Race and Terence Conran. Here was the origin of Habitat.

During the war and beyond there had been little choice in home decoration, and post-war Britain seemed coated in the off-white colour later aptly identified as 'drab'. This combined with the dark and the dingy.

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But the new hall saw a concerted burst of colour and light, with large, open interior spaces flanked by walls of glass and sky-high ceilings, and with lots of curves and tubular steel and veneers of teak, walnut, elm and sycamore split and butterflied to create ornate and opulent patterning.

Fabric designs were based on nature or organic forms, as in Lucienne Day's Calyx textile used in the Homes and Gardens Pavilion of the Festival of Britain.

Her striking festival palette included indigo blue, vermillion and Van Dyck lemon and thrilled a colour-starved populace.

Overall, the appearances and the atmosphere was vivid, vibrant, airy, generous and profoundly democratic.

Forget the lowest common denominator - that key to so much recent Blairite anti-culture: here was the very best for everyone.

And the overall look of 'enriched Modernism' is exactly that now being mimicked in the retro-meets-minimalism of contemporary interior design. That's why mass-produced Fifties furniture can now have a higher value in the salerooms than hand-crafted Georgian antiques.

But even gems need repolishing and possibly resetting. And this weekend marks the grand reopening of the national treasure of a concert hall after a two-year refit which cost a whopping £100m.

Amid a 48-hour fanfare of free concerts, the enhanced attraction is being unveiled - with opened-up and extended foyers, a revamped auditorium with improved acoustics and seating, new bars and two smart new restaurants, the Skylon (in honour of a 1951 festive favourite) and Canteen.

The original decorative palette has been restored, and includes classic 1950s olive green, gold and cream tones with gorgeous wood alongside bronze and limestone. The colour splashes and slashes of Lucienne Day's reworked fabrics will again delight the most demanding eyeballs and there should be a round of applause for the electric blue in the auditorium interior alone.

The new-look Royal Festival Hall, centrepiece of the South Bank Centre arts complex, now takes pride of place in a Thames-side cultural quarter extending to Tate Modern and then beyond Tower Bridge to the Design Museum. In the 24 months of the hall's darkness the whole surrounding area has been reborn as one of the capital's prime social hotspots.

At last London has a riverside promenade, with lights strung romantically between trees and illuminating brilliant buildings in dramatic hues, with shops, bars, cafés and restaurants. All this as well as cultural offerings from film to theatre to exhibitions and concerts as well as a ride on a gigantic ferris wheel which is also part of the legacy of the 1951 festival albeit only recently revived.

So long with a hole in its heart, our capital now has some of the best arts venues in Europe, and all of them within walking distance on one another.

architect-in-charge Rick Mather says: “It was an interesting period piece but some of the futuristic ideas hadn't quite worked.

“The buildings were cut off from the river by a road, there was nowhere to get a drink and there were lots of dark and ambiguous spaces under the buildings.

“There's nothing duller than a blank wall,” he continues. “Look at the success of cities such as Barcelona, where they make the most of the waterfront.

“We wanted the same buzz, with lots happening at ground level, and to make strong links between the different levels.”

So those dark and faintly sinister spaces below the buildings have been opened and lightened, the road has been moved around the back and the whole place populated - not least via a strip of new shops and restaurants next to Hungerford Bridge where lunchtime and evening queues are already forming.

The setting has been further enhanced by the opening of BFI South Bank - the British Film Institute's new HQ, with its state-of-the-art Mediateque cinema, galleries and film store. Replacing the National Film Theatre, it opened in March after a £6m revamp.

And just along the road is the new Young Vic theatre, where the curtain rose last October after a £12.5m rebuild.

And the improvement process is ongoing. The next phase of works led by Rick Mather includes upgrading and reinventing the areas in and around the Hayward Gallery and the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Work is also scheduled to start shortly on Jubilee Gardens at the foot of the London Eye.

Meanwhile, to savour the story of our people's palace of renewed splendour, a Royal Festival Hall Revival exhibition - comprising models, drawings, photos and details of fixtures and fittings - can be seen at the Victoria & Albert Museum from June 21 until October 14.

For information on the South Bank Centre telephone 0871 663 2501 or log on to the website at www.southbankcentre.co.uk.

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