To coincide with John Grindrod's recent book How To Love Brutalism, the author argues the case for one of the South Bank's most divisive buildings.
London’s south bank is a load of concrete dropped from the sky. That’s how a friend of mine recently described the Festival Hall, Hayward Gallery, Queen Elizabeth Hall, BFI and National Theatre. And, in case dropping concrete from the sky is your thing, she was not being complimentary.
While there’s been a resurgence of interest in postwar modernist architecture it’s easy to forget that, for many people, these buildings and the era they represent are dark places to be revisited only as a cautionary tale. For them, the word ‘brutalism’ hangs over the lot (regardless of whether or not they are actually talking about brutalist buildings): for the ‘brutalisation’ of our landscapes and souls they represent. Never mind that the tag ‘brut’ simply stems from the French for ‘raw’ — which is just how the brutalists liked their concrete.
I happen to love all of these buildings on the South Bank, a sweep of postwar styles sat on recently reclaimed marshland. The cute Scandinavian-influenced kookiness of the Festival Hall; the hallucinogenic Yellow Submarine excess of the Hayward and Queen Elizabeth Hall; the subterranean stealthiness of the BFI. However, it's the National Theatre that for me epitomises the very best in design and finish from the postwar era.
Designed by Denys Lasdun in the early 1960s and opened in 1976, the theatre is as much a monumental sculpture as it is a building. Lasdun was one of the most successful British architects of the twentieth century — designing everything from the ziggurats of the University of East Anglia to the complex splayed former council flats of Keeling House in Bethnal Green. The kind of bold diagonal or horizontal shapes of which he was so fond were perfect to be rendered in that most malleable of materials, raw concrete.
Like all the most successful architects, he was an exacting, niggling boss. The National Theatre shows why this fastidious attention to detail was so important, and resulted in the construction of a truly magnificent building.
Everything has been worked through exhaustively, from the kind of stone and aggregate used in the concrete to best reproduce the board marks of the wood, through to the lighting — both inside and out — that would bring these spaces and surfaces to life.
"A lot of one’s reaction to concrete is prejudice," Lasdun said at the time of opening, "because it is often used or made very badly. Here it is used with poetry and made with great feeling."
The feelings he wanted to evoke were as dramatic as the building itself, and the plays that would be staged there. On the outside it might feel extravagant and expressive, but inside Lasdun wanted the public spaces to feel intimate and cave-like, the prehistoric grit illuminated with subdued lighting and furnished with thick, cosy carpets and plush seats. Its marshy Thames-side position was a challenge to the engineers, who made it so that in case of flood the car parks below would flood, and the whole building would float above on concrete ‘rafts’.
A modern fort
On the outside, the rough concrete balconies and fly towers create a kind of modern fort, echoing the Tower of London further down the Thames. Inside, too, there are similarities to the Tower, a mixture of opulence — the ‘crown jewels’ of the plush public spaces and three beautiful theatres — and rough, undecorated functionality — miles of behind-the scenes corridors, offices, workshops and store-rooms rather than medieval torture cells. And when Shakespeare’s history plays are performed at the National Theatre, there’s even a royal body count to rival the Tower too.
Keeping the Dream Alive
Wear and tear from millions of visitors over the years meant that the theatre has undergone a couple of makeovers since it was completed. The most recent, begun in 2013, was taken on by architects Haworth Tompkins, creating a new theatre space, the Dorfman, and a series of workshops in an adjoining building.
Up until the early 1990s the riverside frontage had been a road. Now the storage areas there have been turned into a busy cafe and bar, with a new piazza created on the north-east corner.
Once Lasdun had imagined all of this socialising would take place up on the balcony levels above the waterfront. But these futuristic ‘decks’ never quite worked out like that. Instead, for the pedestrians meandering along the south bank at street-level the resulting buzz helps make the National Theatre feel friendlier and more accessible than ever before. And, like the Festival Hall, the generosity of the building, which you can lounge about in all day without being pestered to consume or move on, has been one of the most admirable aspects of the entire project. There’s certainly not enough spaces like that in London.
Regardless of whether you do or don’t love the National Theatre, take a moment to imagine the original plan. There were to have been two of them — one a theatre, one an opera house — facing each-other on the site of the London Eye. Just think of that. Double the concrete, double the love.
John Grindrod is the author of How To Love Brutalism, illustrated by The Brutal Artist and published by Batsford. Find it in one of these independent bookshops... or perhaps in the National Theatre bookshop itself. Photos by M@