London Buildings I Like No.1
Let’s start with a controversial choice; the National Theatre on the South Bank. This is what was written about the formation of a National Theatre in 1904 by William Archer and Harley Granville Barker.
‘The National Theatre must be its own advertisement – must impose itself on public notice, not by posters or column advertisements in the newspapers, but by the very fact of its ample, dignified and liberal existence. It must bulk large in the social and intellectual life of London. It must not ever have the air of appealing to a specially literate and cultured class. It must be visibly and unmistakably a popular institution, making a large appeal to the whole community… It will be seen that the Theatre we propose would be a National Theatre in this sense, that it would be from the first conditionally – and, in the event of success, would become absolutely – the property of the nation.’
I think the building that houses the Royal National Theatre fulfils this brief admirably (the Hayward Gallery, part of the same complex, less so because of its awkward, underlie access). I find that there’s something friendly and inviting about main building, even though it’s basically a collection of brutal cubist concrete boxes, and has been much reviled for most of its existence. But I am drawn to it, and consider it an iconic part of the London skyline. I’m very glad they cancelled plans to hide it under a glass dome, because the space has truly become one of London’s most loved spots.
There are actually four theatres here. The largest is the Olivier, named after its first artistic director. This is the main auditorium, modelled on the ancient Greek theatre at Epidaurus (a fashionable thing to build 40 years ago). It has an open stage and a fan-shaped audience seating area for 1100 people. The sightlines are fantastic. This is great for audiences, but according to director Trevor Nunn, difficult for actors and directors to adequately fill.
The forecourt is used for open-air performances in summer. The terraces and foyers of the complex have also been used for ad hoc experimental performances. The decor changes, with recent displays of ‘outside wallpaper’, different statues located in random places and giant chairs and bits of furniture. The foyers are open to the public, with a large theatrical bookshop, restaurants, bars and exhibition spaces.
I like heading from the north side of Waterloo Bridge to the south and seeing it gradually appear. In a London eclectically filled with Victorian buildings and shiny glass sticks, it’s surprisingly unique.
People talk about the building being unsympathetic, but I would argue the reverse. What’s unsympathetic are the mirrored tower blocks being constructed along the riverside with no regard for those who see them from the outside. The NT provides decks like those of a ship and can feel oddly maritime, accepting all, whereas the Shard, the Walkie Talkie and their like are glass keeps holding up a uniformed hand to the populace and saying ‘You can’t come in.’ The NT is actually a fun place to visit, and made so by its shape and interior warmth.