Walking the Hills on the South Bank

High Hopes…

Here you will find a short version of an essay I wrote sometime ago about the high-rise walkways at the South Bank in London. As you will see, I do hugely admire the ambitious 1960s’ project, which to me signifies the kind of high-minded” (not to be confused with ‘arrogant’ or ‘aloof’) hybrid approach worthy of praise. The High Line Linear Park Project in Manhattan, which opened in 2011, is a lovechild of such an approach.

I believe we need to be able to pull ourselves back a little to see a bigger picture before we can actually bring benefits to the local/regional level. I’m not blindly promoting globalism per se, the blandness of which is obvious, but if we cannot see a bigger picture every now and then, we cannot be bold and pull ourselves forward. Certain amount of heroism is needed, realistic idealism. A hybrid of global and regional.

I read in the March issue of Blueprint magazine that similar projects using defunct highways, railways and river ways are beginning to appear in other cities of the world, such as Seul, Rotterdam, Madrid and Birmingham, and I thought that it might be interesting to revisit the high-rise walkways at the South Bank. It was an onset of something new…Read on!


It’s all too easy to dismiss the development at the South Bank as a high-minded creation of an elite group of architects at LCC (London County Council) from 1960s slightly out of touch with reality. When the South Bank, or more precisely, the Southbank Centre – the area encompassing the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Hayward Gallery – first opened in 1968, their idealistic concrete ‘mould’ received damning reviews. The Architects’ Journal labeled the Hayward Gallery as “secretive and repelling.” Comparing it to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the article bemoaned the lack of a café or water fountains or indeed the “serenity” found at its American counterpart. Michael Levery wrote in Architectural Design that the area had “faint associations of a set for King Lear, abandoned perhaps before ever being completed…” The Italian magazine Casabella remarked that it was “a sad collection of Second World War bunkers.”

It is clear from a number of publications that the area wasn’t working well for a long time after it opened; it needed a policy change in 1983 to revive its spirit, as Charlotte Mullins makes it clear in Festival on the River: The Story of Southbank Centre:

Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s the buildings looked in on themselves, embracing neither their riverside location nor their proximity to each other. Only with the Greater London Council’s ambitious open foyer programme of 1983 did Southbank Centre start to come alive. The Royal Festival Hall’s foyers began to open during the day, with live music presented in the bar and exhibitions on the ballroom floor.

Despite the gloom and doom it attracted, there were some fervent supporters who could see its potential to do good for the people of London from very early on. In the article entitled “Adhocism on the South Bank,” written for Architectural Review, the architectural critic Charles Jencks described the raised pedestrian walkways at Southbank Centre as if he were a young boy again having fun on a boy-scouts mission:

One is slightly stirred to find out what’s hiding behind the parapets – storm the walls, leap the moats, cross the forecourt, jump the crossbridge, dodge the columns and burst through those fifteen inches of solid concrete to find out what needs so much protection and sanctity in the middle of the twentieth century. A concert hall and art gallery.

Jencks branded the buildings at the Southbank Centre as “pugnacious,” and his portrayal of the incredibly complex airway system that the engineers have devised for the QEH (tucked away inside a massive concrete box atop the Purcell Room) reads almost like an allegory of the experience one has at the place, but he was essentially approving of the way the new design celebrated our freedom to explore the city in an adhoc, playful manner.

Not surprisingly, the modernist architect Neave Brown was also seduced. What Brown liked about the Southbank Centre, he wrote in 2008, was the physical and mental challenges it imposed on visitors: “It had built-in limitations, which you had to outflank and outwit, but these imposed positive patterns of thinking. You had to work with the constraints, and every now and then you had to burst out of it - with the mezzanine, the terraces. […] its presence and difficulties add to London.

Ian Tuckett, Executive Director of the nearby Coin Street Community Centre, contrasted the open aesthetic of the South Bank against the closed, corporate aesthetic of the tall Shell Building behind the Southbank Centre: “…the area [at the time the Shell Building was developed] was not considered to be very desirable, so it was built effectively to keep people inside; therefore it has its own catering, swimming pools, and shops. As a result, there is no need to go out. Even though there are more people working in this area than in Covent Garden, there isn’t the street life that makes the area attractive; thus shops and other forms of small business are not encouraged to open up.”

The plan for the Southbank Centre was approved in 1961. Previously, the area had been heavily industrialized, with private businesses owning exclusive rights to the access of the river. The idea of vertically segregating pedestrians and traffic had been in vogue for sometime among the architects and town planners in the UK before the war. Concerned with such issues as our access to natural light, clean air, and road safety, the modernist architects who designed the Southbank Centre privileged the pedestrian experience of the city, the joy of which was deemed as being eroded through the rapid motorization of our cities and towns.

One of the earliest images of the high-level walkways was created by German architect Ludwig Hilberseimer, who taught at Bauhaus but left for the USA in 1938 to work for Mies van der Rohe. Hilberseimer’s idea was published in a book called City Plan in 1927. Le Corbusier subsequently derided Hilberseimer’s model, calling it “anti-reason.” In Radiant City, which was published in 1933, he ridiculed Hiberseimer’s proposal: “Is man to spend his life from now on gesticulating up in the air on a series of (inevitably) narrow platforms, climbing up and down stairways – a monkey up in the tree tops! … it is madenss. Madness, madness, madness.”


Le Corbusier flipped Hiberseimer’s plan, confining people instead to the ground level and promoting cars up on the high-rise expressways. Jane Jacobs, who wrote the seminal book on urban planning, The Death and Life of great American Cities, criticized both le Corbusier’s vertical garden city idea, as well as his precedent Ebenezer Howard’s idea for horizontal garden city, claiming that they both killed off our street life, therefore destroyed the essence of our cities. Jacobs accuses Le Corbusier of being essentially anti-urban: “…like the garden city planners he [Le Corbusier] kept the pedestrians off the streets and in the parks.”

Le Corbusier’s vertical garden city, nevertheless, has had a wide repercussion in the post-war architectural world. Chamberlin, Power and Bon, the architects responsible for the Barbican in the City of London, took the City’s newly formed Barbican Committee on a study visit to the Hotorget district in central Stockholm in 1958 to show “a garden city which is at the same time truly urban.” The Barbican, completed shortly before the South Bank, however, does not have the same openness, mainly due to the fact that flats in the towers are now almost all privately owned, with 24-hour security guards exuding air of exclusivity. Its lack of openness is also due to the flaws in the planning that looks inward rather than outward. The towers at the Barbican now function much like the isolated ‘islands’ that Jacobs used to describe some of the garden city towns, with its high-rise walkways as barren as the rest of the City on Sundays.

In 1956, Alison and Peter Smithson wrote an article entitled as “An Alternative to the Garden City Idea” for Architectural Design. They were the ones who developed the concept of “streets in the air” in early 1950s but in this case, the alternative they were proposing was “an abolition of planning as we know it.” The article has a series of diagrams, indicating ‘mobility,’ ‘cluster,’ ‘growth,’ ‘re-assessment,’ and so forth. They wrote: “…municipal pre-planning cannot create the form of a new community. Form is generated, in part, by response to existing form, and in part, by response to the Zeitgeist of the time – which cannot be pre-planned.” You can see why Jencks, advocating adhocism, liked Smithsons’ work.

What would, however, Jane Jacobs have said of Smithsons’ idea? I doubt very much that she would have approved the abolition of planning, for the same reason that Anna Minton is weary today of the non-plan enthusiasts, because, as Minton writes, “[no plan] gives reign to market forces.” Yet what Smithsons were suggesting through this article - taking into account the specificities of the situations at hand, as well as taking care not to destroy the existing communities, being mindful of the new, emergent communities, etcetera - was not, dare I say it, so dissimilar to what Jacobs was alluding to in her book: Smithsons had put the street life at the forefront of the city life, which was in sharp contrast to what Le Corbusier proposed: “Death of the Street” (This is what he had put as a title of one of the chapters in his book Radiant City).

In practical terms, the high-level walkways were very difficult to implement. Large-scale restructuring of towns and cities was financially not viable. It also presented problems where original streets were still thriving. No one liked their familiar streets bulldozed senselessly no matter how noble the plans were. The project in the City was soon abandoned. And because of their piecemeal state, the high level walkways in the City were never properly used: most led nowhere and those that did lead somewhere were shunned by pedestrians if there were other, easier alternatives.

Elsewhere, Jane Jacobs discusses the “disneyfication of our neighbourhoods.” Our neighbourhoods have become sterilized, homogenized, and devoid of vitality, Jacobs writes. We are increasingly in less control of our cities. How does the South Bank fare in this context? Does it still possess the feel of what Smithsons were aiming for in their schemes such as Sheffield University and Berlin Haubstadt, namely, “the open aesthetic for open society,” both of which have been credited as the major influence over the design of the South Bank? Is it now so hopelessly commercialized that the original goodwill has all but evaporated?

We must not forget what the area was like before the Southbank Centre came into being. The new design opened the riverside up to the public, although the access to it was not simply ‘given’ to us. We were encouraged to discover it in our own adhoc ways. Unfortunately, some of this ‘openness’ has been eroded in more recent years. If you visit the Southbank Centre website, it tells you that “the stretch of land along the South Bank is privately owned,” and consequently, “photography and filming using tripods are not allowed on the premise without prior permission.”

Cities are the place of discovery and transformation. It’s where people - young and old, urban and suburban, domestic and foreign – migrate to, hoping to make something of themselves. Openness, diversity, conviviality and safety are the essential qualities that pertain to the vitality of our cities. Small, incremental ‘interventions’ of the recent years at the South Bank certainly have helped to keep those qualities intact. The most effective ones, such as the skateboard park underneath the QEH, have been spontaneous, owning much to the ‘looseness’ - or in Jencks’ word, the ‘adhoc-ness’ - of its original design.

What the South Bank displays is a struggle for a better future. We must cherish and nourish it because the essence of a great city is embodied in it. On the Archigram’s archival website, there is a newspaper clipping, which one of the members (N.B. the younger members of the architects responsible for the Southbank Centre had joined Archigram) must have kept, with a quote about the Southbank Centre enthusiastically marked in red pen. It reads: “We would like to see flats and cinemas on the South Bank too, so that it becomes alive; a place where people live and enjoy themselves in different ways, rather than just a cultural centre.” Let’s hope that the Southbank Centre can keep its doors open through whatever transformation it may face in the future.



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