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.

View of The National Theatre from Waterloo Bridge taken shortly after the sunset of a beautiful day of October.

10 comments on “London Buildings I Like No.1”

  1. Chris Webb says:

    I was in the Brunswick Centre in Bloomsbury the other day. It is fairly typical of the idealistic post-war architecture attempting to build a better world to replace the rubble of the Second World War. Unlike most such efforts it is actually well maintained and kept clean and tidy, and being stepped backwards keeps it light and airy.

    The problem in general with such buildings is the British climate: any exterior building material that does not weather gracefully such as brick or stone, or is easily cleaned like glass or metal, quickly begins to look shabby. The NT looks fine in the photos above but on a wet and gloomy day in winter it’s a most depressing and miserable place.

    I like the bit of the South Bank between Tower Bridge and London Bridge, particularly for the paving. The dark slate or whatever it is actually looks better when wet.

  2. Brian Evans says:

    The Brunswick Centre had some work done on it a few years ago (de-brutalising I suppose you could call it) and it has worked well. It’s now a vibrant attractive area.

    I agree about the South Bank. In its own way, the National etc is a fascinating piece of architecture. What was odd, though, that in the early 50’s the Thames walkway there was designed to look like a promenade, yet it wasn’t until the last decade or so that it was properly utilised and turned into a entertainment area with cafes and stalls etc. It was very barren with only a large outdoor bookstall by the NFT to relieve the monotony.

  3. brooke says:

    Apologies in advance to Mr. Fowler and readers. I have lived across the street from one of these Leslie Faraday car-park development buildings and worked in another. Horror upon horror.

    The first was a Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris (Le Corbusier) designed concrete monstrosity in Boston, part of a complex of ugliness known as Government Center–how appropriate. Chris Webb named it–imagine what Boston weather does to the exterior, e.g. patched up cracks around the exterior. And the overhangs make the building gloomy inside and outside even on a bright summer day. And the surrounding grounds are covered with brick– hard walking in winter, bare of trees and so radiating heat in summer.

    The second was the Renaissance Center in Detroit. Gloomy, looked like an Aztec burial tomb and had about as much light. Ford Motor Co. built it, used it as an office building, found that unworkable and abandoned it. General Motors owns it now, and has built it out with more glass and steel.

    The architectural briefs for both these complexes were similar to that for the National Theatre–a lot of talk about appealing to and representing the whole community, revitalization, etc. 1984 New Speak, as communities were demolished to make way for these buildings.

  4. Wayne Mook says:

    It doesn’t matter what it’s built of, a bad building is just that, bad. I stayed in some red brick Victorian monstrosities, dark, ugly and cold, you can hear the wind howl through them. When the weather is bad most buildings look grim. I grew up and saw how bad a Victorian slum can be, ugly and depressing. If you don’t look after a building it soon becomes grim and desperate looking.

    Glass building soon get grime and mould round the edges of the building and windows plus on a miserable, grey rainy day they reflect the grey miserable outside, a mirror is just a mirror, and lots of them together create an endless empty view. I also wouldn’t want to be near one that is left to go to ruin, falling glass.

    The National reminds me of a building built of Lego by a little kid, only bigger. Concrete can create a stark beauty, like an empty windswept moor with slate like hills.

    Concrete is not my favourite material, even if the Coliseum was built of it, I do prefer a nice brick, but as said, if badly made and left it can be as terrible.


  5. Helen Martin says:

    A night time picture illuminated by focused lighting only gives one narrow version of a building. As has been said, rainy weather makes most buildings ugly and glass panes have metal edges which trap the air borne grime. I have never understood the need to close off buildings to the public. Prove that you have legitimate business in our building or you can’t come in. All buildings should share in the life of their neighbourhood so the ground floor at least should have space for businesses, coffee shops, cafes, stationery and book stores, grocers and confectioners. Why not? and why shouldn’t the public be able to go up and see the view without paying an arm and a leg for the privilege? A barricaded building does nothing except build resentment and people from overseas working there never learn anything so what is the point in them being there?
    I was mortally offended when the security guard at the courthouse told me that cameras were not allowed even in the foyer anymore because people were crowding individuals involved in prominent cases even before they got out of the building. (We all know you don’t take pictures until people are out of the big doors.) So I can’t take a picture of our statue of Justice. I had a similar experience in the entrance area to a trucking firm’s office. The man we were seeking had to come out and vouch for us. And that was more than twenty years ago, but in the US.
    Huff, huff. I think it’s my hurt pride speaking.

  6. Jan says:

    I like the N.T. in a funny way it’s just as dated as nearby Victorian or Edwardian buildings. In an even stranger way parts of it have become quite cosy which probably wasn’t anywhere on the architects brief!

    Not been inside the Brunswick centre since its big tart up. But I remember being in there about 0200 once having paid a visit to one of the flats and the strange noises along the concrete corridors was like listening to prison landing sounds a weird wailing,chattering buzz. Very strange not pleasant at all. And pretty loud I have worked in quite a few of these multi deck access flats (like tower blocks laid on one side) but nowhere that magnified noise as much as those ziggurrat shaped blocks. There’s somewhere very similar near Marble arch in Paddington Churchill Gardens if I remember correctly. Ziggurrat shaped blocks of flats that were nearly all bought by the residents – who were initially practically all teachers for some reason. Perhaps affordable safe teacher space for central London! Probably worth in their millions now the Paddington flats. They have fabulously kept gardens, rose gardens in particular, even the balconies were full of plants. I always thought of the place as the “Hanging gardens of Paddington”. With beautiful trailing plants draped over concrete balconies.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    To have one of those flats with gardens on the landings and more outside would be lovely and if those teachers are now retiring, perhaps up north to have access to theatre, the difference between the sale of their apartment and the purchase of house or flat up north could be a nice backstop to their pensions.

  8. Jan says:

    H if the teachers who bought their council dwellings hung on + sold in the last few years they would do more than backstop their pensions! Know it’s crazy but they’d be able to buy half a decent street full of houses up north or away in the sticks somewhere. ….Potty really!

    Mind you if the Tate up north or Imperial war museum Sheffield or wherever just couldn’t measure up to their finely honed London requirements they would maybe just have to consider living in the suburbs …….no I’m just babbling now

  9. Helen Martin says:

    I keep telling people in the conurbation where I live that if you go into the rural areas you may have fewer amenities but you’ll have greater access and if you’re willing to help out you will have access beyond your wildest dreams. Touring musicians are usually friendly and sometimes require putting up, though meeting some of them over breakfast may not be such a pretty sight, but members only can become very special. Post concert events are much smaller in smaller places and there are actors and others who will sometimes arrange for master classes which are more accessible in smaller centres.

  10. John Howard says:

    Completely and utterly agree. I think, as time has gone on, it has become more imposing and unique in its surroundings.

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