History of Southbank Centre

Southbank Centre comprises Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and Hayward Gallery.

Built in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain, the Southbank Centre concert halls were originally funded and managed by the London County Council, and their successors, the Greater London Council. In April 1988, after two years operating as a constituent part of the Arts Council we became an independent arts organisation.

Europe’s largest centre for the arts, our diverse programme aims to reflect our festival roots with a variety of arts, music, dance, literature and performance drawn from around the world.

Here’s just a snapshot of the first seventy years of our history.


Plans are announced by the Labour Government of Clement Attlee to hold a Festival of Britain. It is to be a ‘Tonic to the Nation’ following the ravages of the Second World War. Amidst the temporary domes and pavilions of the Festival a new concert hall is to be built as a permanent centre for the musical life of London; the city having been without a major concert hall following the destruction of the Queen’s Hall by an incendiary bomb in 1941. On the South Bank of the Thames, the site between Waterloo Bridge and Hungerford railway bridge is cleared of its derelict warehouses and factories, including the famous Lion Brewery.


In October, the foundation stone of Royal Festival Hall is laid by Clement Attlee. The hall, designed by architects Sir Robert Matthew and Dr Leslie Martin, is to be the London County Council's contribution to the Festival of Britain.


On 3 May, after only 18 months and an expenditure of £2 million, Royal Festival Hall is opened. The new concert hall seats 2,900 people, whilst the orchestra platform can accommodate an orchestra of 100 and a choir of 250. A ceremonial concert to mark the opening is attended by King George Vl and Queen Elizabeth.


The organ is installed in Royal Festival Hall. Designed by Ralph Downes and built by Harrison and Harrison, the instrument has over 7,800 pipes.


Royal Festival Hall re-opens following an eight month closure to allow for refurbishment and development work, which includes a new ticket office, main entrance on the riverside of the building and additional dressing rooms and offices. Work also begins on two more concert halls adjacent to Royal Festival Hall.


On 1 March, the newly built Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room are opened by Her Majesty the Queen. With 917 seats, the Queen Elizabeth Hall is to play host to chamber orchestras, quartets, choirs, dance performances, opera and music theatre. The smaller 372 seat Purcell Room meanwhile is suitable for chamber music, mime, soloists and cabaret.


Her Majesty the Queen is back at Southbank Centre, this time to open Hayward Gallery on 9 July. Named after the late Sir Isaac Hayward, the then leader of the London County Council, the gallery’s first exhibition is a major retrospective of the paintings of Henri Matisse.


Royal Festival Hall celebrates its Silver Jubilee with a series of celebrity concerts and a major commemorative exhibition on the foyer.


In line with Greater London Council’s radical new ‘open foyer’ policy, the Royal Festival Hall foyers are opened to the public all day, seven days a week, with free exhibitions, lunchtime concerts, evening jazz performances, shops, bars and buffets. Prior to this, the upper levels of the hall would remain closed until a few hours before the concert.


In November the Southbank Centre ticket office is computerised and begins selling tickets from what is now one of the largest and most sophisticated ticket office ticketing systems in the world.


With the abolition of Greater London Council the Arts Council takes over responsibility for the Southbank Centre and its Deputy Secretary-General Richard Pulford - who would later become Southbank Centre’s General Director - begins work setting up the South Bank Board.


The newly created South Bank Board takes control of the Southbank Centre’s concert halls; operating as a constituent part of the Arts Council. In May, Royal Festival Hall celebrates its 35th birthday with six hours of concerts.


The platform of Queen Elizabeth Hall is adapted for the performance of opera, music-theatre and dance. In April, the South Bank Board takes over the running of Hayward Gallery, National Touring Exhibitions and the Arts Council Collection from the Arts Council, becoming an independent arts organisation. As a result Southbank Centre is now one of the ‘big five’ flagship arts companies, alongside Royal National Theatre, Royal Opera House, Royal Shakespeare Company and English National Opera.


In April Royal Festival Hall is designated a Grade I Listed building; it is the first postwar building to gain such a status. Later in the year the Arts Council’s Poetry Library moves to Royal Festival Hall, whilst the autumn sees The Voice Box, a new 77 seat venue for literature and poetry events, open on level 5 of the hall.


In May the London Philharmonic and Southbank Centre win the Evening Standard Opera Award for our joint-staging of Messiaen's St Francoise d'Assise, establishing Royal Festival Hall as London's unofficial ‘third opera house’. Also this year Queen Elizabeth Hall becomes a regular venue for Dance Umbrella, London's annual contemporary dance festival.


In January the London Philharmonic Orchestra is announced as the Resident Symphony Orchestra at Royal Festival Hall following a recommendation by the Tooley Committee. Also becoming a resident of our venues is Opera Factory, who commence a residency of Queen Elizabeth Hall in September. The year also sees our artistic team bring together four major concert agents for the first time to present the International Piano Series, the first of several new collaborations.


In June The Poetry Library welcomes its 10,000th member; its membership having doubled in the four years since it moved to the Southbank Centre. On 17 September The London Philharmonic performs the opening concert of its five-year Residency at the Festival Hall. And the following month sees us awarded a London Dance and Performance Award for our dance programming and dance/design collaboration.


The first Meltdown festival takes place here at Southbank Centre, with English classical composer George Benjamin the first curator.


In September, The Richard Rogers Partnership is chosen to transform the 1960s buildings on site, following an international competition. However, the projected costs and scale of National Lottery funding required for its construction, means their proposed ‘Crystal Palace’ structure sadly never makes it off the page.


The People’s Palace (now Skylon), a 200 seater restaurant designed by Allies and Morrison, opens in Royal Festival Hall in April. As part of a new corporate identity South Bank Centre becomes Southbank Centre in May.


The New London Consort become the sixth of our resident/associate ensembles. The Consort join the London Philharmonic, the Philharmonia, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the London Sinfonietta and the Alban Berg Quartet. March this year sees us venture onto the internet with the launch of Southbank Centre Online.


Continuing our brave new internet dawn, in June we launch online ticketing, only the second arts organisation to do so. In September, Chief Executive Nicholas Snowman leaves us to take up the post of General Director at Glyndebourne Opera.


Karsten Witt becomes Nicholas Snowman’s successor, appointed Chief Executive of Southbank Centre in May. The Waterloo side of Royal Festival Hall is opened up as the concrete walkway which had previously obscured it from view is demolished in September.


Royal Festival Hall celebrates its 50th Birthday with a special Gala Concert, Total Meltdown birthday exhibition and the publication of a souvenir book.


Lambeth Council grants planning permission for an extension of Royal Festival Hall and renovation of its foyers. The work will be supported by £15m awarded by Heritage Lottery Fund. Michael Lynch becomes the new Chief Executive, taking over from Karsten Witt.


Hayward Gallery closes from January to October to allow for refurbishment work which includes an extended foyer and improved access. The project includes a specially designed mirrored glass pavilion, designed by the New York-based artist Dan Graham and named Waterloo Sunset. Elsewhere on site The Poetry Library celebrates its 50th birthday in its fifteenth year here at Southbank Centre.


Brian Wilson premieres his sixth album Smile with a special live performance in Royal Festival Hall featuring members of Wondermits and percussionist Nelson Bragg.


In June Patti Smith and Alfred Brendel give the last concerts in Royal Festival Hall before it closes for refurbishment. Jude Kelly CBE is appointed Artistic Director of Southbank Centre a role she will retain until 2018.


Royal Festival Hall reopens with a special concert from Southbank Centre’s resident orchestras featuring premieres by Anderson and Birtwistle. The Hall also hosts a landmark seven-hour Indian gala concert featuring Ravi Shankar, Anoushka Shankar, Dr. L. Subramaniam and his son Ambi Subramaniam. Artist Antony Gormley’s Hayward Gallery exhibition Event Horizon, sees him install sculptures of human figures on rooftops surrounding the gallery, on either side of the Thames.


Daniel Barenboim performs a recital of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas to immense critical and public acclaim. Also wowing Royal Festival Hall audiences is Grace Jones, who makes her first stage appearance in some years as part of Massive Attack's Meltdown. The same stage also welcomes the UK premiere of Luigi Nono’s Prometeo, and sees the final UK recital by Alfred Brendel, and last UK concert by the Alban Berg Quartet. Also this year, Alan Bishop is appointed as our new Chief Executive


Alchemy festival, our now annual celebration of the relationship between South Asian and British Asian art and culture, took place for the first time. In June and July we undertook a major partnership with the Royal Society to mark their 350th anniversary; a highlight of which was the UK premier of a new orchestral work for children and families by Philip Glass.


In March the groundbreaking inaugural Women of the World festival took over the Southbank Centre. And later in the year we celebrated the 60th year of Royal Festival Hall by playing tribute to the building’s origins with a revived Festival of Britain. 2011 also saw the opening of our Queen Elizabeth Hall roof garden, maintained by Grounded EcoTherapy – a group of volunteers who have experienced homelessness, addiction and mental health problems.


As the Olympic Games descended on London, we got caught up in the Olympic spirit, hosting Festival of the World in the summer of 2012. Lasting from July to September, the festival featured acts from around the world, including singers Bryn Terfel and Baaba Maal and conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra.


One of our resident orchestras, London Sinfonietta gave the world premiere of Steve Reich’s Radio Rewrite in Royal Festival Hall in March. At the same time Hayward Gallery hosted Light Show, the first exhibition of its kind in the UK, it brought together sculptures and installations, which use light as a medium.


In August, our Festival of Love culminated with the Big Wedding Weekend which saw 70 couples, including 15 same-sex couples, married on the Royal Festival Hall stage. To mark 25 years of the World Wide Web, we hosted the Web We Want festival with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, whilst the year also saw the inaugural Being A Man festival.


.Photograph by David Levene.28/5/15

Hayward Gallery is transformed into a playground by Carsten Holler; the artist adding a pair of spiral slides to the building as part of his exhibition, Decision. It was to be the last exhibition in the Hayward Gallery for some time as in September we said a temporary goodbye to the venue, and our brutalist buildings, as they closed their doors ahead of a two and a half year renovation and restoration programme.


The Wondercrump World of Roald Dahl, an interactive exhibition celebrating the centenary of the children’s author, drew the crowds to Imagine festival. With its own building closed Hayward Gallery briefly relocated across the Thames with pop-up exhibition Infinite Mix.


Nordic Matters, year-long festival of Nordic art and culture, featuring music and dance, theatre and visual arts, participation, talks and debates, and gastronomy framed 2017 at Southbank Centre, and also brought us the interactive exhibition Moominland. In the autumn The London Literature Festival welcomed huge names to our Royal Festival Hall stage, including Hillary Rodham-Clinton and Tom Hanks. The year also gave us a new Chief Executive as Elaine Bedell was appointed in place of the retiring Alan Bishop.


After almost three years of extensive refurbishment our iconic brutalist buildings, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room reopen. A new era for Southbank Centre's venues sees an even greater focus on the best live music, bold programming, new artists, new commissions and artist residencies. We launch with a vibrant, fresh programme of music, gigs, dance and performance that pays tribute to the historic legacy of the buildings and the many legendary artists who have performed in them over the past fifty years. Plus, see the return of the much missed late-night gigs in a new expanded 1,000 capacity gigs space in the Queen Elizabeth Hall Foyer.