New York Times: Where Culture Flows Along London’s River Thames

LONDON — As Lisa Vine looked out over the River Thames from the floor-to-ceiling windows of the Southbank Center’s Royal Festival Hall main foyer, she recalled first coming here as an 11-year-old girl in 1957 to attend a concert.

Over the decades, Ms. Vine, a retired teacher and native Londoner, who had stopped in for coffee on the way back from a nearby errand, has seen a lot of change here. She has not only watched the Southbank Center develop — with the Queen Elizabeth Hall opening in 1967 and the Hayward Gallery the next year — she has also seen the area around it grow and change, with the addition of artistic and performance spaces including the National Theater, the British Film Institute, the Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globe.

“I remember when the river was dull,” she said, looking out at a panorama that includes the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Now, she noted, “there is so much going in terms of concerts and events, but I don’t get out here as often as I should.”

That’s the sentiment of Londoners and visitors alike. With so much going on at the Southbank Center, from classical music concerts, dance premieres and D.J. sets to poetry, film and literature festivals, it would be impossible to attend every event. And all of those happenings — at a venue that’s open five nights a week, where about 3,500 annual events take place — have made the Southbank Center one of the focal points of London’s arts and culture scene.

Hosting the British Academy Film Awards, commonly known as the BAFTAs, for the first time on Sunday is yet another big moment in the storied history of the space, which has had everyone from Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Jacqueline du Pré to David Bowie, Michelle Obama and Greta Thunberg grace its stages.
“We’re so thrilled about the central location of the Royal Festival Hall and accessibility of the space, enabling us to program our most ambitious and inclusive night for attendees yet,” Emma Baehr, the BAFTAs’ executive director of awards and content, wrote in an email. (The awards have previously been hosted in various locations, most recently the Royal Albert Hall in Kensington.) “Southbank is the largest arts center in the U.K., home to the London Film Festival and in the heart of London on the River Thames — having staged our television awards there for several years, it felt a natural move for us.”

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The Royal Festival Hall — which seats 2,700 — was opened in 1951 by King George VI, along with his daughter Princess Elizabeth and her husband, Prince Philip, during the Festival of Britain, which was centered on the south bank of the Thames. The area had been devastated during World War II and its derelict buildings and factories were razed to build a number of temporary structures for the festival.

During the next few decades, not only did the Southbank Center develop — both the 900-seat Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Hayward Gallery, which holds contemporary art exhibitions, are fantastic examples of 1960s Brutalist architecture — but the area around it did, too. The British Film Institute, which hosts film festivals and has helped fund a number of films including the BAFTA-nominated movies “Aftersun” and “Triangle of Sadness,” opened its first theater in 1957 under the Waterloo Bridge. And the National Theater, under the direction of Laurence Olivier, opened its doors next to the institute in 1976.

About a mile east is Shakespeare’s Globe, which first opened in 1599 and then burned down in 1613 during a performance of “Henry VIII” (a second theater was later built but was eventually closed by parliamentary decree in 1642). The newest version of the theater opened in 1997 and now houses two stages including the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, where plays and concerts are performed by candlelight. A stone’s throw from the Globe is the Tate Modern, the world-class modern and contemporary art museum housed in a former power station that opened its doors to the public in 2000.

“I spend my life in a constant state of FOMO because there is always something happening,” said Stuart Brown, B.F.I.’s head of program and acquisitions, adding that the area is quite magical because of its location by the river and the architecture of the buildings. “You’ve got these incredible world-class artistic offerings to people through music, theater, visual arts, film, and all those experiences can inspire us, move us, make us think about the world differently.”

Music has always been a highlight of the programming at the Southbank Center and with six resident orchestras — including the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Aurora Orchestra — almost every evening there is some kind of concert.

“Music is absolutely central to everything we do,” said Elaine Bedell, the chief executive of the Southbank Center. However, she added that classical music audiences globally had not returned to full pre-Covid strength and that that was something she and her colleagues wanted to address. “We have a very dynamic new head of classical music, Toks Dada, who has a very clear strategy and has very ambitious plans for bringing new audiences to classical music.”

The Purcell Sessions have been part of that overall strategy to bring in younger audiences to various genres, including classical music. Housed in the same building as the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Purcell Room is an intimate stage with just 295 seats. The series based there is a chance for up-and-coming musicians, some of whom work across different art forms, to showcase their talents. “It has always had this legacy of experimentation,” Ms. Bedell said. “The idea is, it’s a real space for collaboration, innovation and invention.”

The Purcell Room, of course, is not the only space for collaboration and experimentation. For 40 years the Southbank Center has had an “open foyer” policy in the building that houses the Royal Festival Hall, which connects to the other Southbank buildings through a series of outdoor concrete walkways. Like the year-round free exhibitions, and the concerts outside during the summer Meltdown festival, the foyer is open to the public seven days a week as a civic space. Weekly music jams, dance groups and language clubs meet up there to practice.

“That sense of openness and inclusiveness is the unique thing about the Southbank Center,” Ms. Bedell said, adding that there are cafes and restaurants scattered across the cultural campus that help add to the center’s revenue. “I like the idea that people kind of feel their way to use the space.”

Over the years, the various cultural institutions along the river’s south bank have cross-pollinated on projects. For a number of years, the British Film Institute has used the Royal Festival Hall for premiere screenings during the London Film Festival. Last year during the Hayward Gallery’s exhibition “In the Black Fantastic,” which focused on Afrofuturism, the institute hosted a talk with Ekow Eshun, the show’s curator.

“We have a warm and collaborative relationship with other organizations on the south bank, meeting regularly as leaders to learn from each other and share best practice,” Kate Varah, the executive director of the National Theater, wrote in an email. “We’re all asking similar questions as we navigate through the permacrisis, and it’s more important than ever that we share our experiences and have a forum for collective ideas.”

During the lying-in-state of Queen Elizabeth in September, a number of the spaces worked together to entertain — through poignant music and archival film of the royal family — the thousands of mourners who stood in the queue that snaked past the cultural institutions before heading across the river to Westminster Hall.

The interaction between the venues is just one of the reasons fans of the area like Ms. Vine say they love it so much.

“It is a wonderful place, one of my favorites in London,” she said.

Photo credits: 1) Credit…Anthony Harvey/Shutterstock; 2) Credit…Bjanka Kadic/Alamy