History of Southbank Centre


Southbank Centre comprises Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and Hayward Gallery. It shares the site with the independently managed National Theatre and National Film Theatre.

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

Hayward Gallery was built in 1968 and was funded and managed by the Arts Council of Great Britain until April 1987 when its administration moved to Southbank Centre.


Plans are announced by the Labour Government of Clement Attlee to hold the Festival of Britain. It is to be a "Tonic to the Nation" following the ravages of the Second World War. A new concert hall is to be built amidst the temporary domes and pavilions of the Festival, to be a permanent centre for the musical life of London. The site between the Waterloo Bridge and Hungerford railway bridge on the south bank of the Thames is cleared of its derelict warehouses and factories, including the famous Lion Brewery. London has been without a major concert hall following the destruction of the Queen's Hall by an incendiary bomb in 1941.

October 1949

The foundation stone of Royal Festival Hall is laid by Clement Atlee. It is to be the London County Council's contribution to the Festival of Britain. The architects are Sir Robert Matthew and Dr Leslie Martin.

3 May 1951

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


The organ is installed in Royal Festival Hall. It is designed by Ralph Downes, built by Harrison and Harrison and has 7,700 pipes.


Festival Hall re-opens following a closure of eight months to undertake a development scheme which includes a new ticket office and main entrance on the riverside, extra dressing rooms backstage and offices. Work begins on two more concerts halls adjacent to Royal Festival Hall.

1 and 3 March 1967

Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room are opened by Her Majesty the Queen. Queen Elizabeth Hall has 917 seats and is host to chamber orchestras, quartets, choirs, dance performances, opera and music theatre. Purcell Room has 372 seats, making it specially suitable for chamber music, mime, soloists and cabaret.


Hayward Gallery is opened by Her Majesty the Queen on 9 July. It is named after the late Sir Isaac Hayward, the then leader of the London County Council and its 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.


The Greater London Council introduces the radical 'open foyer' policy. The foyers of Royal Festival Hall 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 remained closed until a few hours before the concert.

November 1984

The 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.


When the abolition of the GLC is announced, the Arts Council takes over responsibility for the South Bank Centre and the then Deputy Secretary-General, Richard Pulford begins work setting up the South Bank Board.

April 1986

The South Bank Board takes over control of the concert halls from the Greater London Council, as a constituent part of the Arts Council.

May 1986

Royal Festival Hall celebrates its 35th birthday with six hours of concerts.

April 1987

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 and one of the "big five" flagship arts companies alongside Royal National Theatre, Royal Opera House, Royal Shakespeare Company and English National Opera.


The platform of Queen Elizabeth Hall is adapted for the performance of opera, music-theatre and dance.

April 1988

Royal Festival Hall gains the status of a Grade 1 Listed Building.

Autumn 1988

The Arts Council's Poetry Library moves to Royal Festival Hall. The Voice Box, a new 77 seat venue for literature and poetry events, opens on Level 5.

May 1989

The London Philharmonic and Southbank Centre are joint winners of the Evening Standard opera award for the joint staging of Messiaen's St Francoise d'Assise, establishing Royal Festival Hall as London's unofficial "third opera house".


Queen Elizabeth Hall becomes a regular venue for Dance Umbrella, London's annual contemporary dance festival.

January 1990

The London Philharmonic Orchestra is announced as the Resident Symphony Orchestra at Royal Festival Hall following a recommendation by the Tooley Committee, headed by Sir John Tooley, former head of Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.

The orchestra's first season in residency is to begin in 1992.


The artistic team bring four major concert agents to work together for the first time to present the International Piano Series, the first of several new collaborations.

September 1990

The Centre's in-house design team wins the Apple Business Excellence Award for the quality of its design work, including the relaunched monthly diary.

September 1990

Opera Factory, one of the country's most innovative opera companies becomes resident at Queen Elizabeth Hall, presenting three seasons each year.

September 1991

Front of house areas, cafes and bars in Royal Festival Hall are refurbished.


The Centre begins to use one of the most sophisticated computer marketing systems available, BMS, to target specific interest audiences for different events.

June 1992

The Poetry Library welcomes its 10,000th member. Its membership has doubled since 1988 when it moved to the South Bank Centre.

17 September 1992

The London Philharmonic performs the opening concert of its five-year Residency at the Festival Hall.

October 1992

The Centre is awarded a London Dance and Performance Award for its dance programming and dance/design collaboration.


Architects, Allies and Morrison begin work on the refurbishment and restoration of Royal Festival Hall.

Feburary 1994

An international architectural competition is announced to select an architect to transform the 60s buildings on the site. The scheme of the winning practice will be the focal point of a bid for Lottery funding.

September 1994

The Richard Rogers Partnership is announced as the winning practice. The "Crystal Palace" they propose over Hayward Gallery and Queen Elizabeth Hall frees up previously unused space and will create a comfortable space for arts activities all year round. South Bank 2001, an exhibition of all ten short-listed schemes, opens in Royal Festival Hall foyer.

February 1995

In a major overhaul of catering, new contracts begin for Aroma (for the coffee bars) and Sutcliffes Catering (for the riverside cafe, buffets and bars). New banqueting contracts are also agreed.

April 1995

The People's Palace opens in Royal Festival Hall. The 200-cover restaurant is run by the successful Levin family and designed by Allies and Morrison.

May 1995

The new corporate identity is unveiled. Designed by CDT, it refocuses Royal Festival Hall and Hayward Gallery as the key venues and "twin pillars" of the performing and visual arts programme. The former identity, the South Bank Centre, is shortened to Southbank Centre and retained as a management name only.


Jodi Myers is appointed as Director of Performing Arts, joining the organisation from Warwick Arts Centre. Susan Ferleger Brades is appointed Director of Hayward Gallery. She was previously Deputy Director of the gallery for three years, having joined the organisation in 1980.

March 1997

The organisation launches Southbank Centre Online, the most comprehensive and up-to-date source of all information on Southbank Centre events.

July 1997

The New London Consort becomes the sixth of Southbank Centre's resident/associate ensembles. The Consort joins the London Philharmonic, the Philharmonia, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the London Sinfonietta and the Alban Berg Quartet in illustrating the range and calibre of classical music programming on the South Bank.

March 1998

Southbank Centre's lottery bid is the subject of a meeting with Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, to discuss a way forward, following the Arts Council's finding that it is unable to fund the project due to lack of funds. Elliott Bernerd, a Governor of the South Bank Board from 1995, is appointed as Chairman.

April 1998

Elliott Bernerd takes up his position as new SBB Chairman.

June 1998

Southbank Centre launches online ticketing, becoming one of only two arts organizations to do so.

September 1998

Chief Executive Nicholas Snowman leaves Southbank Centre to take up the post of General Director at Glyndebourne Opera. Southbank Centre Finance Director, Paul Mason, takes on the role of Acting Chief Executive.

December 1998

New development strategy unveiled for the South Bank.

May 1999

Karsten Witt appointed Chief Executive of Southbank Centre.

May 1999

Following an open competition, Rick Mather appointed Masterplanner for the South Bank.

June 1999

BFI opens London IMAX on site between Waterloo Station and the South Bank.

August 1999

Heritage Lottery Fund announces £12.5 million in-principle award to Southbank Centre to develop plans for refurbishment of Royal Festival Hall.

September 1999

Completion of the demolition of concrete walkway obscuring views of Royal Festival Hall from Waterloo and Lambeth, funded with the support of English Partnerships.

October 1999

BA London Eye ferris wheel raised into position next to Jubilee Gardens.Opening of Jubilee Line extension.


Draft Masterplan published. Southbank monthly magazine launched. Akram Khan appointed choreographer in residence.

May 2001

Royal Festival Hall celebrates 50th Birthday. Gala Concert, Total Meltdown Birthday exhibition and souvenir book published. Fund raising campaign launched. Karsten Witt resigns as Chief Executive. Paul Mason takes over as Acting Chief Executive.


Lord Hollick appointed Chairman. Lambeth grants planning permission for Royal Festival Hall foyers renovation and for the extension building. Heritage Lottery Fund confirms award of £15m for Royal Festival Hall Michael Lynch, Chief Executive of Sydney Opera House appointed Chief Executive of Southbank Centre.


Plans for creating a world-class park on Jubilee Gardens and the setting up of an independent trust get the go-ahead. Work begun on new foyer for Hayward Gallery. New stairway from Belvedere Road to Hungerford Bridge opened. Festival Square Café opens in summer. The Poetry Library celebrates its 50th birthday.

Hayward Gallery closes from 6 January 2003 for the construction of an extended foyer. The gallery reopens in October 2003 with a new café bar, improved access and space for public programmes and entertainment. The highlight of the project is a mirrored glass pavilion in the shape of an ellipse, designed by New York-based artist Dan Graham, who has conceived and developed the project in collaboration with Haworth Tompkins Architects.

Dan Graham unveils a new permanent Hayward Gallery foyer, the Waterloo Sunset glass pavilion named after a song by The Kinks.


Brian Wilson premieres Smile.


In June Patti Smith and Alfred Brendel give the last concerts in Royal Festival Hall before it closes for refurbishment.

Jude Kelly is appointed Artistic Director of Southbank Centre.


For his Hayward Gallery exhibition Blind Light, Antony Gormley installs sculptures of human figures on rooftops surrounding the Hayward Gallery on either side of the Thames.

Royal Festival Hall, after closing in summer 2005 for refurbishment, stages a reopening concert with Southbank Centre’s resident orchestras featuring premieres by Anderson and Birtwistle. Ravi Shankar, Anoushka Shankar, Dr. L. Subramaniam and his son appear as part of a seven-hour Indian gala concert.


Daniel Barenboim performs a recital of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas to immense critical and public acclaim. 

Rick Haythornthwaite is announced as the new Chairman of Southbank Centre.

Grace Jones returns to the stage for Massive Attack's Meltdown with a powerful performance, winning five-star reviews.

Royal Festival Hall stages the UK premiere of Luigi Nono’s Prometeo.

Last UK recital by Alfred Brendel, and last UK concert by the Alban Berg Quartet.

Alan Bishop is appointed Chief Executive of Southbank Centre.


In April the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela presents a series of concerts with conductor Gustavo Dudamel.