words Saint Etienne
The Royal Festival Hall is a triumph of post-war architecture, says Gabriel Coxhead. But can Saint Etienne’s tuneful montages of latte-sippers do it justice?
If any one building can claim to have softened Britain’s suspicion of modern architecture, it’s the Royal Festival Hall. Hugely popular from its inception, it’s also the most successful embodiment of the post-war Labour government’s ideal of democratising art and culture. So it’s entirely fitting that an event to celebrate the building’s reopening following a two-year, £111 million overhaul by Allies and Morrison should be such a determinedly populist affair. Made by British pop group Saint Etienne, This is Tomorrow – a documentary about the history and renovation – was shown in the RFH’s auditorium with a live score performed by the band and a 60-piece orchestra from local schools.
The theme was RFH-as-national-treasure, telling its story through a combination of archival material, musically accompanied montage sequences and talking-head interviews with architects, designers and cultural commentators. For anyone familiar with Saint Etienne’s retro-futurist, pop-art sensibilities, it was no surprise that the emotional and intellectual core of the film was looking back to the building’s origins as part of the 1951 Festival of Britain. Amid all the period photos, maps, models and assorted memorabilia, the most touching moments were the comments from Festival attendees: one recalled his wonder at the towering Skylon and his first, awed sight of red plastic in the Dome of Discovery; another mourned Waterloo’s dilapidated industrial neighbourhoods, razed in the cause of urban regeneration.
Later sections were less engaging, though the live aspect did lend a certain meditative charm to the long montages of fastidious refurbishment work: the endless rolls of carpet being woven or the enormous stacks of Robin Day-designed chairs. The remodelling of the auditorium was particularly impressive, as swarms of builders erected 26 miles’ worth of scaffolding into a vast, labyrinthine structure.
Where the documentary seriously faltered, however, was in its depiction of the architecture as a whole. “No other building,” intoned a voiceover, reading from a 1950s history of the Festival, “offers such beguiling viewpoints to the exploring visitor.” Yet it was precisely this feeling of beguilement, of architectural surprise, that the film failed to convey. The problem, essentially, was the style of cinematography. Those slow sequences of fixed-position shots that were so good for capturing oddly poignant, artfully composed moments – builders painting the roof while Antony Gormley’s statues loomed in the distance – were totally inadequate for evoking the sensation of weightlessness and dynamism that characterises the RFH, from the undulating swoop of its river facade to the way its great, diagonal staircases seem to float in space.
In fact, very few of the recent structural alterations were specifically mentioned – nothing about opening up and unclogging the main foyer, or about infilling the notoriously sloping pit in front of the bar. Perhaps Saint Etienne was just worried about getting too technical for the audience. Instead, we had to endure nebulous commentary about “creating spaces for communal interaction” and other such ponderous cliches of officialese, while a cringe-worthy montage of joggers, night time revellers and al fresco latte-sippers played – like some kind of London Tourist Board infomercial. Ultimately, the relentless, vacuous tone of celebration simply made the RFH seem rather commonplace – just another multi-zoned public space – instead of the beautiful modern masterpiece that it is.
This is Tomorrow, by Saint Etienne, was at the Royal Festival Hall, London, 29 June www.southbankcentre.co.uk