The evolution of the Royal Festival Hall’s foyer spaces

Southbank Centre Archive

Though the landscape around us continues to change, our Royal Festival Hall has been a fixture on London’s South Bank since its construction for the 1951 Festival of Britain.

The one permanent building constructed for the Festival, it was also the first major public building in Britain designed with modernist architecture. In recognition of this it received a Grade 1 listing in 1988, one of the first post-war buildings to become so protected.

As striking as the building’s exterior appearance was, its interior – largely the work of a group of London County Council architects led by Peter Moro – was also significant, wrapping rooms, lobbies and foyers around the suspended central concert hall to help insulate it from surrounding city noise. As noted in a 2013 conservation report, ‘the lobby spaces [are] an essential element of the original design concept, and the stepped sequence of lobbies is highly significant… The spatial flow through lobby and landing spaces is an internal landscape of transparency and light’.

Valued and protected though they are, that doesn’t mean that these foyer and lobby spaces have remained the same since opening. Much like the Royal Festival Hall’s surrounding landscape, and the programme of events hosted here, they have evolved and adapted over time. The latest evolution came just this year, with a reconfiguration of the Level 2 Foyer space, designed to reflect the changing needs and use of the space and to return it to a more open layout.

And as these works were completed, we took the opportunity to look back through our archive and see just how these foyer spaces have changed over the course of seven decades.


The foyers’ formative years

Southbank Centre Archive

Light was a key principal in the design of the Royal Festival Hall, with huge windows on three of the buildings to help it flow through the foyer spaces. The decor, like the building’s modernist architecture, celebrated a bright new era and featured aspects are now considered icons of modern design, such as Robin Day’s furniture and, visible above, the ‘Net & Ball’ carpet design which had been inspired by the pattern of soundwaves.


The interior of the Royal Festival Hall in 1954, a sleek new contemporary designed Espresso Bar with metallic backdrop and wood panelled counter
Southbank Centre Archive

It’s easy to see the introduction of stalls and shops to the Royal Festival Hall foyer spaces as one of the more modern additions, but as early as 1954 an Espresso Bar was added, in the space where you’ll currently find our Archive Studio.


Courtesy Chas Martin

All this activity made for some committed cleaning work, and there were no electric floor cleaners to hand back in the 1950s, just good old-fashioned post-war London graft. This image also shows the openness of Level 2 at the time – long before our singing lift was added in front of the far window. You may also be able to see how the bar on this side – facing the Clore Ballroom – is sunk beneath the regular floor level, as well as catch a glimpse of some of the original modernist furniture.


As that previous image isn’t the brightest, here’s an illustration from The Official Record of the Royal Festival Hall, a book about the hall’s construction that was released in 1951, in which you can see the sub-floor level nature of the bar. It would remain like this until the 21st century, when it was raised up to match the surrounding space to improve access.


The modernist architecture of our foyer spaces proved the go-to location for industries looking to highlight their own contemporary aspirations. Hosting conferences and exhibitions – such as Kitchens of the World (above) organised by the General Council of International Cookery in 1962 – was also a welcome source of income to help maintain the Royal Festival Hall. Some of these events, such as the 1956 Institute of Directors Conference (below) would take over almost the entire floor space of what is now Level 2 and The Clore Ballroom.


The first major alteration to our buildings took place in the 1960s when the Royal Festival Hall was extended. Part of this work, which was completed in 1964, involved adding a riverfront cafe for the first time.


Opening up a space for everyone

The first big shift in how our foyer spaces were used came in 1983 when the Greater London Council introduced its Open Foyer policy, which aimed to give public access to more buildings throughout the city. This included our Royal Festival Hall which had previously only been open at lunchtime, and in the evenings, specifically for concert goers or exhibition attendees, and would now be open for anyone to visit.

To serve the increasing number of visitors coming into the foyer spaces, a number of changes were made to the building, including the introduction of new food and drink offerings, such as the pasta bar pictured above.


Festival Music, a record and music store in the Royal Festival Hall in the 1980s
Southbank Centre

Retail outlets were added to the spaces including a bookshop and our own record shop, Festival Records. And the foyers also saw a greater use as venues within their own right, hosting a wider variety of exhibitions than ever before, all of which were now free. These free exhibitions began with a showcase of the work of political cartoonist Gerald Scarfe.

A woman in a headscarf looks at a picture within an exhibition in the Royal Festival Hall foyer space
Southbank Centre


Free music, festivals and further alterations

The programme of free entertainment in our Royal Festival Hall lobbies and foyer spaces that began with the Open Foyer policy has continued ever since, with regular music performances a fixture, such as this performance from the early 1990s, captured below.

A live music event in the Royal Festival Hall in the late 1980s/early 1990s – musicians perform on the edge of the Clore Ballroom as an audience seated around tables watches on
Southbank Centre

And the space continued to be altered and amended. A glass box housing a shop was added to Level 2 in 1993, and between 2005 and 2007 the Royal Festival Hall underwent a further trench of refurbishment work which saw a new box office built, the bar facing the Clore Ballroom de-sunk to improve access, and new counters and serveries built for the riverfront cafe.


An event in the Royal Festival Hall Level 2 foyer as part of 2012's Alchemy festival, the sapce is decorated with South Asian artwork and materials
Alchemy 2012, Southbank Centre / Sam Appa Photography
Alchemy festival, 2012

The 2000s also saw the Southbank Centre embrace a ‘festival’ approach to our programming, with weeks and fortnights dedicated to a particular theme such as Women of the World, Alchemy – which celebrated South Asian art and culture, the Festival of Love, Being a Man, and Imagine Children's Festival. These festivals often saw our foyer spaces transformed and redecorated as vibrant hubs for the events taking place around them, as well as becoming event spaces in their own right.

An event in the Royal Festival Hall Clore Ballroom as part of Alchemy 2011; sufi musicians are seated on a rug, whilst an audience sit around them; behind them chairs and South Asian decorations can be seen on the Clore Ballroom
Alchemy festival 2011



Up until this year the most recent architectural change to the foyer spaces came in 2015 with the construction of our Archive Studio on Level 2, offering a physical home to much of the material we’ve shown you here.

Public engaging with the Southbank Centre's Archive Studio
Belinda Lawley


Introducing our latest changes

As we get ready to celebrate the Royal Festival Hall’s 75th anniversary in 2026 we have begun giving some much needed upgrades and refurbishments to aspects of this historic building. The most recent of these has been a redevelopment of the cafe, bar and box office spaces on Level 2 to make them more accessible, more sustainable, a better fit for current use (cash and paper tickets were the norm when our box office was last refurbished), and more in-keeping with the building’s original aesthetic.


Welcome desk with staff and visitors
Adam Luszniak

The most apparent change you’ll notice is the removal of the glass shop, allowing for more seating and tables for visitors and opening up the space to make it more in keeping with the 1950s principles of light and space that guided the building’s design. And on the opposite side of the building we’ve removed the stand-alone welcome desk and made a less cluttered combined welcome and box office area.


Photo of the bar with people waiting to be served
Adam Luszniak

And we’ve switched our bar and cafe spaces around, with the bar now facing out onto the river and the cafe facing the Clore Ballroom. We’ve also changed the areas you can’t see, behind the bars and counters, creating more room for our people to work, and allowing us to make more of our food and drink options here on site, allowing for fresher and more sustainable food options.


Fluted glass behind the bar
Adam Luszniak

All these changes have been made with the building’s original 1950s decor in mind. The counter tops from the welcome desk round through the cafe are clad in walnut veneer, a material used elsewhere in the building. And the backdrop to the bar, itself covered in terrazzo, uses a classic modernist aesthetic of fluted glass in steel frames.

You can see all this for yourself this summer as our foyer spaces are open whenever we are, just as they have been since 1983.


Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre
Morley Von Sterberg
Royal Festival Hall

Our Royal Festival Hall is open 10am – 6pm Mondays and Tuesdays, and 10am – 11pm, Wednesdays to Sundays.

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