Save our concrete spaces

Yesterday in the Observer Rowan Moore launched a diatribe against proposals for London’s South Bank, specifically the Hayward Gallery and Queen Elizabeth Hall. They will, he says, involve ‘thrusting commercial space into almost every spare void’. Nature, we are told, abhors a vacuum and so, it seems, does commerce.

Moore, who does have form as a complainer, is worried that the South Bank will be turned into another airport terminal or shopping centre, albeit with some fresh air. His worries have some justification. There was a lot of fuss when shopping started creeping into railway stations that it would somehow spoil the pure experience of travel. But they seem an ideal venue for shops, which are either convenient or help to kill time, or both. Similarly at airports – what do you do if you don’t shop or eat? Hunch over your laptop?

But the South Bank is very different. It already has some shops and eating places, as Moore points out. The British Film Institute, after many false steps, has transformed itself into a permanently buzzy venue. Gabriel’s Wharf nearby has maintained an alternative feel to its retail, probably because its temporary status – stretching out wonderfully in the recession – has discouraged the chains. But the outlets under the Festival Hall are, as Moore points out, all chains, and we could expect more of the same. They are often reliable, but they don’t give an individual character – and the South Bank is a concrete oasis with some great cultural buildings.

The problem may be that we just don’t appreciate it as open space. When we think of open space and landscape we think of parks and planting. Which are admirable, and to be encouraged. But the South Bank is a very different kind of landscape – a concrete landscape on several levels, with places to gather, for temporary events, and a great balcony onto the river. It is worth preserving.







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