Queen Elizabeth Hall construction

Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall was opened by Her Majesty the Queen in March 1967. Ranked as ‘the ugliest building in Britain’, by a Daily Mail poll shortly after it’s opening it has long shaken off that tag to become a much loved venue, celebrated for its iconic brutalist architecture.

The construction of such a modern building took time, with work on Queen Elizabeth Hall commencing in 1963. These images, selected from our archive, offer a unique look at that long careful construction process.

Simply click on an image below to find out more about it.

In the foundations
Workers creating pile caps for the site in early phase of construction
Here we can see a number of workers in shaft creating pile caps, consisting of concrete pillars with steel reinforcement frames. Work on the Queen Elizabeth Hall commenced in the summer of 1963 and started with the excavation of the site. The construction of such a complex building required a skilled labour force of draughts people, engineers, scaffolders, carpenters and steel-fixers. By 1965 approximately 250 men were working on the site. It was a difficult task to recruit and maintain a labour force with the skills necessary for the construction of this complex building, particularly during what was a period of high activity in the building industry in London and the South East.
On the scaffold
View from upper level construction site towards St Paul’s Cathedral and Oxo Tower.
This image shows the view from the Belvedere Road side of the upper level construction site, looking east towards St Paul’s Cathedral and Oxo Tower. In the foreground the top of a formwork or ‘shutter’ can be seen. Concrete was poured into these wooden moulds to create the support columns. Each shutter was produced to very specific standards and a specific type of wood Rip-sawn Baltic pine was chosen due to it having ‘the most satisfactory grain structure’. This produced the vertical patterning that can be appreciated on many of the concrete surfaces of the buildings.
Site cleared and ready to go
The cleared site, as work begins on the Queen Elizabeth Hall
Taken from the Royal Festival Hall, this photo shows the cleared site, ready for construction, which has begun on the right hand side. Also visible in the image are the River Thames and a few parked cars belonging to workers on the site. After going out to tender, Higgs and Hill Ltd. (whose logo can be seen on a piece of apparatus in shot) became the main contractor for the proposed works and were responsible for excavating down to pile cap level. The company had a wealth of experience digging foundations in a wide range of materials. Their previous work included the Festival of Britain foundations, old wharfs and dry docks, refuse, and timber piling.
Early work is underway
Looking north across the construction site towards River Thames and Waterloo Bridge
In this photo we can see an overview of the early site work, looking towards River Thames and Waterloo Bridge. As well as the sand piles and corrugated iron roofed sheds a sign reading “L.C.C. Architects Department” is just visible in the bottom left corner. Detailed drawings of the size and position of each piece of formwork or ‘shutter’ – the wood mould for the concrete – including the positions of every fixing, were drawn up by the draughtsmen. Each drawing needed approval by the L.C.C. Architects, so workers would journey to the County Hall every day to submit their drawings. Once signed off by the architects, each drawing was handed over to the joiner’s shop to create the shutter, and the position of each shutter was laid out precisely and checked by an engineer.
Commencing with the concrete
Overview of the construction site looking west towards Royal Festival Hall
This image shows an overview of construction site looking west with excavated ground towards the rear of the view. Building close to the edge of the River Thames created problems for all the constituent buildings of the Southbank complex. As these were the days before GPS, it was difficult to accurately centre the augers of the massive drills used and inaccuracies were often discovered in the positions of the piles. The solution was to set out a complex series of beams and connect them to several of the perimeter piles.
Work underway across the whole site
Looking west across the site from the road onto Waterloo Bridge
This image shows an overview of the north edge of the construction site, looking west towards Hungerford Bridge with pedestrians passing by on the river side. In the background, the Royal Festival Hall is visible clad in scaffolding. Royal Festival Hall was remodelled in 1964, alongside the construction of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, to provide a new back-of-house, green room and restaurant space, as well as new walkways to connect the two venues together.
Glazing the building
Installing the large glass windows
Workers installing a large sheet of plate glass into it’s cast anodized frame. The frames were set into pre-cast concrete panels made from Cornish granite, which were used for many of the exterior vertical surfaces.
Setting out the auditorium
The site of the auditorium, looking west towards Royal Festival Hall and Hungerford Bridge
The site of the Queen Elizabeth Hall auditorium, looking west towards Royal Festival Hall and Hungerford Bridge. The whole of the underside of the Queen Elizabeth Hall was built on a cantilever basis, laid down on temporary steel structures whilst workers built the mushroom-type columns to support it. The auditorium floor could not support itself until the walls and roof were eventually added to make it structurally complete. Only after this could the workers dismantle the supports from beneath the auditorium floor.
Beginning to take shape
Site overview from Belvedere Road, facing River Thames and Waterloo Bridge.
This is an overview of the site from Belvedere Road, facing the River Thames and Waterloo Bridge. Mushroom pillars can be seen in the top left of the image, and in the bottom left, draughts people drawing up plans. The mushroom-shaped columns, each standing 17 feet tall, were all cast and completed in one pour including the cap. This process took a great deal of trial and error in order to perfect, as each column had to be levelled to within 5 mm precision. A section of the site was designated for experimentation  and was referred to as the ‘graveyard’. In the graveyard, sample panels were temporarily constructed in order to trial different methods of pouring the concrete and later discarded.

How to love the brutalist architecture of Southbank Centre, with John Grindrod

John Grindrod is a writer, publisher, and the author who grew up on ‘the last road in London’, on the edge of Croydon’s New Addington housing estate. As well as Shouting at the Telly, he has written several books on architecture, which reflect the landscape of his upbringing; from the concrete new-builds of Croydon (Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain) to where the city meets the countryside (Outskirts: Living Life on the Edge of the Green Belt).

His latest book, How To Love Brutalism, is a passionate and personal book about John’s own love for the often controversial architectural style. Who better then, to discuss our own brutalist venues, including the newly refurbished and restored Queen Elizabeth Hall?

Inevitably, for someone who has lived their life in London and its surrounds, and possesses a fascination that borders on obsession when it comes to concrete buildings, the brutalist structures of London’s South Bank are far from alien to John. Instead they held a connection with the author that was as much personal as it was architectural.

‘I used to come to the South Bank a lot when I was a teenager. I used to escape from Croydon and sit and have a cup of tea under Waterloo Bridge at the National Film Theatre cafe, or go and sit in the Royal Festival Hall, or rummage in the book market. Therefore these buildings personally represent a sense of freedom, and excitement and escape.’

There’s a horrible fear that when something gets refurbished you’ll commit genericide, and everything will just become a sort of white cube. But it’s the quirks that make this building what it is,make it really attractive, because there isn’t another building like it.
on the refurbishment of Queen Elizabeth Hall

Ahead of our interview John and I took a tour of the refurbished Queen Elizabeth Hall, from the stage to the seats and everything in between. Once we’d finally found our way out from the labyrinth of backstage corridors and stairways that make the venue tick, I asked John if there was a particular aspect of the restoration that stood out for him?

‘I really like the refurbishment of the Queen Elizabeth Hall auditorium; the seating the stage. The entire place feels much more coherent, it feels like a more modern, contemporary experience of going to a concert now.

‘One thing that happens to buildings over time is that they accumulate a lot of clutter, and you can see how much this incredibly complicated building has been decluttered. Stripping it back, and making it a lot cleaner has really helped; it’s got its personality back, by taking away a lot of the unnecessary details that had accrued over time.’

Queen Elizabeth Hall Reopening Press Selection 24
Queen Elizabeth Hall auditorium, photo by Morley Von Sternberg

Giving the buildings back their personality and returning the iconic spaces to their former glory had been very much central to the refurbishment project, and the brief handed to architects, FCBStudios. Sitting in the spacious open Queen Elizabeth Hall Foyer, which somehow manages to feel both stark and welcoming it appeared to my, admittedly unprofessional, eye as though we were in a mission accomplished, but did John agree?

‘There are some things that must have been quite a hard consideration for the architects, you know, can we do this or can’t we? What can we get away with? What should we do, what shouldn’t we do? But it feels like things have been done really sympathetically, and they’ve amplified the shape and form of the building in lots of ways, which is really nice to see. There’s a horrible fear that when something gets refurbished you’ll commit genericide, and everything will just become a sort of white cube, and you could easily do that to this building, you could remove a lot of its quirks. But it’s the quirks that make this building what it is,make it really attractive, because there isn’t another building like it.’

To say there’s no other building like Queen Elizabeth Hall, particularly when seated just a stone’s throw from another brutalist icon in the form of Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre, could perhaps seem something of a hyperbolic statement, but John was quick to elaborate.

‘The history behind the architecture here is really interesting, because there was this idea that the new structures shouldn’t overshadow the Royal Festival Hall. You’ve got these big things, the Royal Festival Hall and Waterloo Bridge, and both make huge statements whereas these buildings look inwards rather than outward, and so present a rather blank face to the rest of the world, which is quite unusual. They aren’t making a great dramatic statement; they are full of personality, but it’s on a smaller scale.’

It’s important not to get too pompous about this building, because it’s not a pompous building, to take things too seriously would be against the spirit of the building itself.
on the spirit of Archigram

That personality, that quirkiness can be credited to the minds of the groundbreaking architects who designed Queen Elizabeth Hall and Hayward Gallery, in particular Ron Heron, Warren Chalk and Dennis Crompton. These men were among the founders of the avant-garde collective, Archigram, ‘an almost prank architectural group’, as John puts it. Though Archigram’s projects were solely hypothetical, when it comes to Southbank Centre’s 1960s venues, its influence is certainly apparent.

‘You don’t normally expect architecture to be playful, it’s not a prerequisite, but here they’ve really enjoyed doing quite strange things, from the roof lights on the Hayward Gallery to the strange asymmetric geometry of the building. Rather than trying to flatten it out and make it more seamless, they’ve actually enjoyed the faceted nature of the building, and pushed that, so it’s ended up as a much more eccentric building than most arts spaces. It’s important not to get too pompous about this building, because it’s not a pompous building, to take things too seriously would be against the spirit of the building itself.’

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Not everyone was enamoured by this playfulness however. When the buildings first opened the Queen Elizabeth Hall was ranked as ‘the ugliest building in Britain’, by a Daily Mail poll. But, accepting that tabloid reactions will always offer something of a caricature of opinion, were these buildings really as shocking and unpopular to the people of late 1960s London as we perhaps presume them to have been?

‘In a lot of instances, new civic centres being built in the centres of towns were replacing often grand Victorian buildings and so there was a bit of a shock for people. But at the same time people were getting amazing amenities, whether it was big shopping centres or town halls or libraries or universities or schools, built in dramatically different modernist styles, including brutalism, and so I think most were willing to give things a go'.

From the off the people coming here really appreciated that the building seemed to reflect the avant-garde nature of what was being programmed inside… there’s a real synergy between the architecture and the function of the building
on the initial reception of Queen Elizabeth Hall

‘This site was quite different because it had already been cleared for the 1951 Festival of Britain, and you can see how successful this building was from the off. It was a very popular venue, and the people coming here really appreciated that the building seemed to reflect the avant-garde nature of what was being programmed inside. So here there’s a real synergy between the architecture and the function of the building.

‘Remember, these buildings came just 16 years after the Royal Festival Hall but this building is entirely different, and they do represent completely different ambitions. You’ve got the very clean, quiet, beautiful lines of the Royal Festival Hall, which has an almost Scandi 1930s feel to it, compared to the angular jazzy freeform expression of the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Hayward Gallery. They’re entirely different visions of modernism and the future and how we could live and they’re both utopian dreams, but in quite a different way.’

This notion of brutalist building projects being born as utopian visions is particularly interesting when compared to their subsequent perception. Within a decade, the same estates and buildings which had been intended to offer a brighter vision of the future would be depicted as dystopian landscapes by artists and filmographers, from Stanley Kubrick’s use of the Thamesmead Estate in A Clockwork Orange to our own Queen Elizabeth Hall appearing as a Draconian prison in an episode of Doctor Who.

‘I think there’s something about the epic vision of these utopias that tips over very easily into dystopia if you want to represent it that way. These writers and artists and filmmakers, they’d all grown up during the Second World War and are aware of, and are able to see, the downside of utopia and utopian visions - with it having been, to an extent, a fascist architecture and ideology. If you’ve grown up in that situation, when you see people then trying to map out a really positive big utopian vision in the post war period, it’s hard not to transfer those thoughts and feelings onto these entirely unrelated but new buildings, which represent another attempt at changing the world in a huge fundamental way. As such it’s as much a sensibility of the artist as it is the actual buildings and the architecture.’

So in many ways it is simply coincidental that it was brutalism which became the go to architecture for such dystopian projections?

‘I feel that regardless of the architecture that happened after the Second World War - say we’d gone into a neo-Baroque form of architecture - we’d have still had to see it on a giant scale, because of the amount of rebuilding needed. And then the artists and filmmakers would’ve just represented neo-Baroque as the dystopian future, because this was the architecture of the time, and it was being done on a vast scale because it had to be. It was this scale I think that provoked a lot of those dystopian representations.’

Queen Elizabeth Hall Reopening Press Selection 04
Queen Elizabeth Hall Foyer ceiling detail, photo by Morley Von Sternberg

This juxtaposition of depictions of brutalism, the utopian idyll against the dystopian construct, are - albeit to an extreme - representative of the way in which brutalism has often been received. A style for which it is often accepted that there is less a middle ground, more a no man’s land, between loving it and hating it. A mindset forged perhaps in mass-publicised perception, from that Daily Mail poll to Prince Charles’ dismissal of the National Theatre as ‘a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting’.

‘I think there’s a lot of people who felt they needed to be given permission to like brutalism, or who did like it, but didn’t have anyone to talk to about it, or couldn’t really articulate it. Now, because there are people out there noisily celebrating this stuff, and organisations like the Southbank Centre celebrating their architecture, that has made it a lot easier for people to say they like it.

‘But yes, lots of people hate it and fair enough. There are lots of buildings I hate - I don’t always like all brutalist architecture. Some buildings I love, some buildings I think are maybe in the wrong place, or their architects went too far, or not far enough. It is presented in a black and white way, when actually people’s responses to it are a bit more complicated. Some people might hate concrete housing but love a concrete arts centre; people have quite a nuanced reaction to the architecture in terms of what they think is or isn’t appropriate.’

The fact that there are people out there noisily celebrating brutalism, and organisations like Southbank Centre celebrating their architecture, that has made it a lot easier for people to say they like it.
on the renaissance of brutalism

Are we then seeing something of a renaissance for brutalism at the moment? And if so, what is it that has fuelled this new love for old concrete?

‘There’s definitely been a resurgence of interest in brutalism and I think smartphones and social media have enabled this; that people can take photos without ostentatiously taking photos. I used to take pictures of buildings in Croydon and people would look at me as if I were mad, now you can do that quietly on your phone. You can then share that with people who are really interested, whereas before it was quite hard finding other people who were also interested in your geeky obsession, whatever it was. With Twitter or Instagram its made it a lot easier to find those people.

‘It’s also really heartening to see that places like Southbank Centre and the National Theatre have been carefully restoring their buildings and appreciating the architecture they’ve got. Interestingly there were lots of proposed schemes for the refurbishment and rebuilding of the South Bank over the last thirty years that were really unsympathetic to the idea of keeping these brutalist buildings or looking after them and instead sort to change them completely.

‘Fashion plays a massive role in how people respond to these buildings, and these things do come in waves. There’s been a huge brutalist resurgence, but then that will go away again - I don’t think it will necessarily die down to what it was like in the 1980s - it just won’t be as fashionable as it is now, then at some point in the future it will come back again. That’s why the fact that these buildings are being looked after now is really important, because otherwise we lose amazing structures and you can never get them back again.’


How To Love Brutalism by John Grindrod - for use in blog only

John Grindrod’s latest book How to Love Brutalism is published by Batsford and illustrated by Brutal Artist. It is available from the Southbank Centre Shop.

find out more

Queen Elizabeth Hall is now fully open following its refurbishment and restoration with a wide programme of events, from classical concerts and recitals to talks and spoken word and our new club night Concrete Lates.

see what’s on

interview by Glen Wilson

What is brutalism?

What is 'Brutalism'? by Southbank Centre: Think Aloud

Pioneered in the 1950s, and embraced by  a number of prominent architects in the 1960s, brutalism offered a marked, almost revolutionary, contrast to all that had gone before it. And, whether you see it as a celebration of an unpretentious and honest aesthetic, or an ugly grey carbuncle more suited to nuclear power stations, there is no denying that brutalism remains one of architecture’s most divisive styles.

But what is brutalism? And how did it come to be adapted for prominent arts buildings, such as here at Southbank Centre? To gain an insight into brutalist architecture we spoke to Richard Battye, Project Architect for Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, and lead architect on the recently completed restoration of our own brutalist venues; Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and Hayward Gallery.

When you you see the hard cold concrete of a brutalist building, they can look very inhuman, like a machine-made building. But if you stop and think about how they were actually made you start to realise that really they’re a very deep expression of the craft involved in making them.
Richard Battye, Project Architect for Queen Elizabeth Hall restoration.

To celebrate the reopening of Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room, Dr. Otto Saumarez Smith, Shuffrey Junior Research Fellow in Architectural History at Lincoln College, University of Oxford, took a closer look at the history and architecture of these brutalist icons.

Concrete Dreams - celebrating the brutalist buildings of Southbank Centre

Queen Elizabeth Hall reopening - your photos and reactions

After two and a half years hidden behind hoardings and scaffolding, Queen Elizabeth Hall is open once again. Since late 2015 our iconic brutalist venues have been closed for renovation and refurbishment, but, if your reactions from their first week back in action are anything to go by, it would seem that the work and the waiting were very much worth it.


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The big test of any renovation is how well it is embraced by those who loved the buildings before the dust sheets went down. Thankfully, the early signs were promising.

Entering the refurbished foyer space, it’s hard not to be taken by the space, which brings the original architecture to the fore, somehow managing to be both stark and welcoming.


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Who knew just how many of us had a not-so-secret love harbouring for all things concrete?


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The newly installed curved banquettes on the Thames-facing side of the opened up foyer space were a particular hit among new and returning visitors alike.


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As too were the circular leather seats, a nod to the original stylings and fittings when the venue first opened in 1968.


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Helping us reopen the buildings back to the public were Chineke! The orchestra of black and minority ethnic musicians had been the last group to play the hall before it’s closure, so their return to mark this grand opening brought a pleasing symmetry as well as a pleasing sound.


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Chineke! were not the only classical musicians helping us to celebrate Queen Elizabeth Hall’s return - later in the week the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment also took to the refurbished stage to give us Mozart: Master of Deception, with Sir Roger Norrington.

On entering the auditorium, I had a frisson of mild surprise that was really the pleasure of remeeting an old friend who’s not only unchanged, but uncommonly healthy-looking. Everything seems fresher — the walls scrubbed, the aluminium and black leather (original) seating reupholstered.
Paul Driver, The Sunday Times

Coinciding with the reopening of Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room is Concrete Dreams, an exhibition which offers a unique backstage tour and dip into the archives of these incredible buildings.

The exhibition offers visitors to get up close and personal with these concrete architectural behemoths… often very close, and very personal.

But as well as celebrate the building’s past, the exhibition tours also give you a chance to really take in the impressive restoration that has been delivered by the architects at FCB Studios.

For the superstitious Friday 13th is considered unlucky, a day to fear, not for us. Friday 13 April saw the debut of Concrete Lates, our new regular club night.


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Inspired by Andreas Gursky at Hayward Gallery and the artist’s love of techno, we welcomed a host of top electronic musical talent to Queen Elizabeth Hall Foyer, including Pan Daijing, JASSS and Giant Swan.

Delivered in collaboration with Boiler Room the event proved both a daring departure and a great success; with artists and revellers alike making the most of the new space until 2am.


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On Saturday there were two welcome returns to the Southbank Centre site. Firstly the sunshine - which at times this winter it has felt we’ve been as long without as we have our brutalist venues - bathed Queen Elizabeth Hall in light; highlighting just how much light enters the foyer space from the opened up windows.


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Then on Saturday evening we welcomed back electronic artist, arranger and composer, Hannah Peel. A year on from performing Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia in The Clore Ballroom, Peel brought her new work Tubular Brass to Queen Elizabeth Hall to much acclaim.

Capping off a fantastic seven days, and giving a yet further dimension to the programme of our reopening week, on Sunday Queen Elizabeth Hall was filled once again for a special reading of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, delivered by a fabulous range of speakers that included Man Booker Prize-winning novelist and poet Ben Okri OBE, award-winning Nollywood star Adesua Etomi, and poet, performer and playwright Yomi Sode.

The 900-seat space, with its warm, vivid acoustic sounding livelier than ever, has been cleaned, mended, cherished and upgraded, especially backstage. Cleverly it is at once the same and better. You don’t need to be a connoisseur of concrete to love this place.
Fiona Maddocks, The Observer

So, one week down, who knows how many more to go? These were just the opening seven days of a new era for our venues, which will see a greater focus on the best live music, bold programming, new artists, new commissions and artist residencies. The music and performance goes on, so take a look at the full programme and come and experience them for yourself.

see what’s on

The historic restoration of Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and Hayward Gallery has been made possible through generous support from Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund, thanks to National Lottery players, and through Southbank Centre friends, trusts and foundations supporting the Let The Light In campaign.

Concrete Dreams - celebrating the brutalist buildings of Southbank Centre

As we get set for the long-awaited reopening of Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room, Dr. Otto Saumarez Smith, Shuffrey Junior Research Fellow in Architectural History at Lincoln College, University of Oxford, takes a closer look at the history and architecture of these brutalist icons.


Do buildings have memories? If concrete were conscious, the buildings of  Southbank Centre would remember playing host to an astonishing range of events. In the half century since the Queen Elizabeth Hall was built in the late 1960s, this beautifully brutal concrete megastructure has reverberated with many artistic eruptions. What trace remains from a concert once the applause has died down, the audience has departed, and instruments are packed away? What is left from an exhibition once the artworks have been taken down?

The crucial legacy of  Southbank Centre is in memories: in the recollections of the architects, builders and craftspeople who gave these structures form; the artists, performers, technicians, and programmers who filled these spaces with art and music; but most importantly in the enjoyment of audiences hungry for new experiences, inspiration, and delight. These buildings were made for artists and audiences, and it is people who give them life. 

The current exhibition Concrete Dreams celebrates the re-opening of a complex of bold, sometimes controversial buildings, as they re-inhabit their role at the heart of London’s cultural life after over two years of refurbishment. Somewhere in between the permanent building and the intangible memories of users, the exhibition presents the treasures left behind by an astonishing artistic programme: showcasing the posters, recordings, press cuttings, autograph books and more, that make up an evocative archive full of tales and personal accounts. 

The buildings soon after opening in 1968

Opened in 1967-68, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and Hayward Gallery joined the already existing Royal Festival Hall to create a powerhouse of artistic provision. At the end of the Second World War the Thames-side site, despite its glorious views across to the Houses of Parliament, was little more than a derelict industrial wasteland. The 1951 Festival of Britain had transformed the area, but it was short lived, with most of its structures removed when the incoming Conservative government came to power in later that year – leaving Royal Festival Hall standing in a wasteland. Plans for the additional buildings were revealed in 1961, with work beginning in 1963. 

This complex of buildings was designed by a group of radical young architects led by Norman Engleback, working for the London County Council, which then housed the world’s largest architectural office. They were given astonishing freedom to innovate, although the entire team was brought to the brink of resigning when their experimental and radical ideas were threatened. The architects approached the project from the inside out, with the exterior a secondary consideration to the requirements of the concert halls and galleries.

The buildings are a result of an almost symphonic collaboration, bringing together a whole range of participants and viewpoints: from bureaucrats from the London County Council, to officials from the Arts Council of Great Britain, to the construction company Higgs and Hill, and the engineering firm Arup, as well as input and guidance from acousticians, artists and musicians including Henry Moore and Yehudi Menuhin. 

A thrilling hodgepodge of sprouting mushroom columns, jumbled geometries, cantilevered cubes, and precipitous terraces
Dr Otto Saumarez Smith

The structure that resulted from these collaborations is a thrilling hodgepodge of sprouting mushroom columns, jumbled geometries, cantilevered cubes, and precipitous terraces. All of these elements tie together with an upper-level podium, out of which the buildings rise like dirty icebergs. The architecture is often contrasted with that of the neighbouring Royal Festival Hall as being emblematic of the difference between the architectural culture of the 1950s and of the 1960s; between the ‘herbivores’ and the ‘carnivores’ as the playwright Michael Frayn put it. 

Royal Festival Hall is elegant, spacious and sophisticated whilst the 1960s buildings, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and Hayward Gallery, are rebellious, inward-looking and sculptural. All however are beautifully conceived and executed buildings, offering superb performance spaces, and providing a sense of theatre and occasion to the way people circulate through them; they are only completed by people using them. 

Queen Elizabeth Hall Foyer 2018
The refurbished Queen Elizabeth Hall foyer. Photo by Morley von Sternberg

Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and Hayward Gallery are outstandingly detailed throughout, and were the work of hundreds of highly skilled craftspeople. Concrete can have a bad reputation, and it is often perceived as uniform, ugly and alienating. The cool grey board-marked concrete of Southbank Centre’s 1960s buildings belies these perceptions – hand-made, sumptuous and haptic. The concrete was poured into moulds of Baltic pine, reproducing the rough grain of the wood, a technically demanding process: the building has been described as a wooden building, but cast in concrete.

Along with the board-marked concrete, much admired for its distinctiveness, Southbank Centre boasts external precast panels made with crushed Cornish granite, cast anodized doors and window frames, aluminium seats formed using a technique borrowed from the aircraft industry and cushioned with elegant black leather, crystalline white Macedonian marble floors, and polished brass handrails. The rough tactile poetry of these restrained materials are really able to sing again in architects Feilden Clegg and Bradley’s renovation: they have worked with, rather than against the (concrete) grain of this 1960s masterwork.

From the early years the programme of Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room were distinguished by their astonishing diversity, reflecting an era that saw a huge expansion of what constituted culture. Events ranged from the classical to the countercultural, from folk music and jazz to rock and pop. They pushed boundaries, ignoring censorship and giving early exposure to many musicians and artists who would go on to become household names, such as the summer music series put on by Daniel Barenboim, then only 25, as an alternative to the Proms.

People don’t fall in love with the buildings; they fall in love with the things made possible because of the buildings
Dennis Crompton, one of the original architects of Southbank Centre

Indian classical music was also a mainstay of the programme from the early days, with concerts by Imrat Khan, Surya Kumari and others. Southbank Centre was the location of many pioneering moments in the history of the English Folk Revival and Electronic music with acts such as Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. 25 June 1973 saw the first outing of Mike Oldfield’s epic Tubular Bells. David Bowie, T Rex and Pink Floyd all had early concerts in the Queen Elizabeth Hall building. Poetry International, Southbank Centre’s longest running festival, was set up by future Poet Laureate Ted Hughes in 1967, to celebrate what he saw as poetry’s ability to be ‘a universal language of understanding in which we can all hope to meet’, a mission the ongoing festival continues to uphold. 

At the time, neither the Tate nor the National Gallery were able to hold temporary exhibitions without displacing part of their permanent collections, so Hayward Gallery immediately filled a vital lacunae in London’s art world. Early pioneering shows included the first solo large-scale UK shows by Bridget Riley and Anthony Caro, whilst the arrival of British conceptual art was celebrated in the exhibition Kinetic Sculpture and the New Art.

Dennis Crompton, one of the rebellious young architects who designed  Southbank Centre, argued that ‘People don’t fall in love with the buildings; they fall in love with the things made possible because of the buildings.’ Concrete Dreams is a love letter to these buildings, and all the wonderful things that were made possible because of them. It is an opportunity to look back, but also to take inspiration from fifty pioneering years, and look forward to a continuing legacy where these concrete buildings continue to play host to concrete dreams.


The 1951 Festival of Britain remembered

Southbank Centre’s origins date back to the 1951 Festival of Britain. One of the landmark UK cultural events of the 20th century, it celebrated arts, science, industry and design, and marked the centenary of the 1851 Great Exhibition. More than eight million people paid to visit the festival site located on the south bank of the Thames throughout its five-month run, but thousands of other events were held all over the country under the Festival of Britain banner.

Today, the only building that remains from the main festival site is our largest auditorium, Royal Festival Hall. Throughout its foyers, however, you can find some fascinating artefacts from the festival, which are well worth a visit (especially as it is free to do so!).

The Story of 51

It’s hard to stress the importance of the 1951 Festival of Britain on everything from urban architecture and interior design to the regeneration of London’s South Bank. If your curiosity is piqued, we suggest you take a look at our small but perfectly formed exhibition The Story of 51.

There you can find some really interesting photography of the Festival of Britain site along with a 3D model, loads more information about its origins and realisation, and memories of some of the visitors who were here in 1951.

There’s also a couple of cabinets giving you an idea of the vast range of memorabilia inspired by the Festival, from homewares to toys and a silk scarf.

The remains of the original Festival Star are also displayed at the exhibition, along with birds that were suspended from the ceiling of one of the domes. The Story of 51 exhibition was created by Hemingway Designs and you can find it in the Level 2 Foyer, Blue side at Royal Festival Hall near the Southbank Centre shop.

Patchwork of the Century

Located near the Ticket Desk in the Level 2 Foyer of Royal Festival Hall, this incredible piece of history features 100 individual, hand-sewn patches, commemorating an event or achievement for every year from 1851 – the year of the Great Exhibition – to 1950.

Among the patches is one about women’s suffrage, one about the advent of television and another to mark the opening of the Forth Bridge.

Eighty women from the Twickenham area created the work in just two months, using recycled materials including old uniforms and blackout fabric. It was designed and assembled by Lilian Dring, an artist and illustrator who also created works for London Underground, as well as children’s books.

Click here for details of every patch

The Sunbathers

Peter Laszlo Peri’s striking sculpture The Sunbathers adorned the exterior wall of the Waterloo Station exit of the Festival of Britain for five months in 1951, and then all but disappeared for six decades.

In 2016, Historic England asked Brits if they had any idea where certain lost artworks might be found and sure enough, someone recognised The Sunbathers as a sculpture they had seen in a hotel in Blackheath.

After extensive restoration, Peri’s sculpture has now come back home – indoors this time – and can be seen near the Ticket Desk in the Level 2 Foyer of Royal Festival Hall.

find out more

The Foundation Tablet

From The Clore Ballroom, Royal Festival Hall, head down the Blue Side stairs and stop on the landing, where you’ll see the exact spot where King George VI stood on 3 May 1951 to declare Royal Festival Hall open. The external doors you can see from the landing were originally the main entrace to Royal Festival Hall, with a box office located outside.

And one object you won’t see. . .


Ever wonder why the restaurant on Level 3 of Royal Festival Hall is called Skylon? It comes from the name of a striking sculpture created for the Festival of Britain, which was situated on the south bank of the Thames, soaring nearly 90 metres (300 feet) into the air.

Although a popular feature of the festival, the Skylon was deemed too costly to preserve and move and was therefore taken away in 1952 with the rest of the exhibition. Its fate remained a mystery for almost 50 years until the BBC Radio 4 programme Front Row discovered that the sculpture had been bought by a west-London scrap metal dealer, with a few fragments turned into souvenirs.

The Museum of London has in its collection a brass ring plate featuring the names of Skylon’s creators – Architects Powell and Moya, Consulting Structural Engineer F.J. Samuely. It was originally mounted beneath the sculpture. The sculpture’s wind cups are the only other bit known to have survived, but they are owned by a private collector.

take a tour

If you want to find out more about our history or our architecture, why not book a place on one of our fascinating tours, led by an expert guide.

uncovering our archive

Southbank Centre is in the process of digitising its vast archive of materials as well as making it available to the public for the first time in our Archive Studio.

Our brutalist building refurbishment has just six months to go

There are now just six months to go until Southbank Centre’s brutalist arts venues reopen. July marks the move into the final quarter of our two-year restoration project to bring the Hayward Gallery, along with our Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room, back up to a world-class standard.

These works will mark a new chapter for these much-loved buildings, providing much-improved facilities, and experiences, for both artists and audiences. At the heart of the refurbishment is the replacement of the Hayward Gallery’s pyramid rooflights - hence the name of our fundraising campaign, Let The Light In. 

Hayward Gallery rooflights in the afternoon - July 2017
Looking up through the newly installed roof lights in Hayward Gallery

After years covered in dust, dirt and paint, these iconic pyramids have been replaced, allowing the natural light they were initially conceived for into Hayward Gallery for the first time.

Hayward Gallery 5- July 2017
Works taking place in the newly illuminated Hayward Gallery 5

With a much lighter gallery space, there is no longer anywhere to hide for some of the building’s original fittings and fixtures, which had begun to show signs of age. So, Hayward Gallery’s interior spaces have also been given some much needed TLC, as you can see below.

Terrazzo polishing and remedial works in Hayward Gallery 4.   - July 2017
Terrazzo polishing in the Hayward Gallery

In Queen Elizabeth Hall we’ve been working to give an enhanced experience for our audiences, as without you, there’d be no Southbank Centre. So we’ve been busy installing state-of the art production and technical equipment and enhancing the acoustics; the scaffolding from which is now coming down, as you can seen below.

Let The Light In update - July 2017
The scaffolding comes down in Queen Elizabeth Hall

Likewise, in Purcell Room, we’ve been striving to deliver a greater experience for all, with refurbished seats and similar technical and acoustical improvements to those in Queen Elizabeth Hall. Below you can see the freshly sanded floor, awaiting it’s revamped seats, and, wrapped in green plastic, the new lighting bridge.

Purcell Room - July 2017
Purcell Room with its newly sanded floor

The Queen Elizabeth Hall foyer is also getting something of a makeover, with new glazing to provide not only more light, but also enhanced views of the river. And here too, we’ve been adding in another form of pyramid to the roof, this time on the inside. You can see number 13 of 19 being put into place, below.

Pyramid 13 (of 19) in QEH - July 2017
All refurbishment images above courtesy of Richard Battye, FCB Studios

Though we’re now on the last leg of our developments there’s still much to do, and in order to complete this valuable refurbishment, we need your support. You can support our historic Let The Light In refurbishment project by donating, naming a seat or even buying exclusive jewellery inspired by our iconic 1960s buildings.

donate to Let The Light In

Name a Seat

buy exclusive jewellery

Bringing brutalist buildings back to life

The restoration of Southbank Centre’s brutalist arts venues continues apace. Come behind the hoardings to see how they’re changing.

We’ve been working hard to restore our 1960s arts venues Hayward Gallery, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room to their former glory and are now we’re on the final push. There are just six months of the project remaining, before we get set to reopen these spaces in early 2018, ready for the next 50 years of iconic performances and exhibitions.

The restoration of the buildings has allowed us to install 21st Century technology to bring the performances spaces up to a world-class standard, all whilst staying true to their original 1960s aesthetic. We’ve also given them some much-needed TLC, so that these well-loved venues remain bright, welcoming and inspiring spaces for everyone to enjoy, rain or shine.

Hayward Gallery - May 2017

The Hayward Gallery’s new pyramid rooflights have now been installed; allowing natural light to flow into the gallery spaces for the first time.

Hayward Gallery - May 2017

Enabling this flow of light in through the pyramids are a series of coffer linings, which can be seen above, installed in the Hayward Gallery upper galleries that help control the amount of light brought through from outside.

Hayward Gallery Rooflight - May 2017

Which, in turn means you can now look up from the gallery and see the sky through the new pyramid rooflights, as shown in the above image.

Hayward Gallery - May 2017

The result is a much brighter gallery space, in the Hayward Gallery upper galleries, as you can see above.

Queen Elizabeth Hall auditorium - May 2017

Somewhere beneath this M.C. Escher-like maze of scaffold and stairs is the Queen Elizabeth Hall auditorium.

Queen Elizabeth Hall Foyer - May 2017 v2

Out in the Queen Elizabeth Hall Foyer work continues to open up the space and allow more light in.

Queen Elizabeth Hall roof light - May 2017

And pyramid rooflights are also being reinstated in the Queen Elizabeth Hall Foyer, true to the brutalist aesthetic of the building.

Images, copyright Richard Battye, FCB Studios

Be part of our historic refurbishment project

With your support, improvements to Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room will include a refurbished auditoria with enhanced acoustics and refurbished seats, state-of-the-art production and technical equipment. As well as an upgraded foyer with new glazing to create a light and welcoming space with views over the river, and a new cafe and bar to welcome visitors.

At Hayward Gallery the focus of the refurbishment is to restore the 66 glass pyramid rooflights in order to let controlled natural lighting into the upper galleries for the first time. We are also replacing the stone floors of the gallery, repaving the sculpture terraces and installing new climate control and other essential building services to ensure Hayward Gallery can continue to present its programme of world-class exhibitions.

You can show your support in many ways, by donating, naming a seat or even buying exclusive jewellery inspired by Queen Elizabeth Hall’s iconic architecture.

Donate to Let The Light In
Name a seat
Buy exclusive jewellery

Looking back: Queen Elizabeth Hall Foyer in photographs

Take a look back at fifty years of the brutalist Queen Elizabeth Hall Foyer through these incredible photographs.

Our brutalist concert venue Queen Elizabeth Hall, which celebrated its 50th birthday last year, is due to reopen this month, following two years of extensive refurbishment and restoration work.

Opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 1 March 1967, the aesthetic of Queen Elizabeth Hall’s foyer has changed with every era. The space has seen it all, from sleek 1960s leather seats, to something of a departure-lounge chic of the late 1970s, before the sofas made way in the 1980s for, well, for garden furniture. 

Take a look at the photos below, to see how the Foyer has changed over the decades.

Queen Elizabeth Hall 1967
Queen Elizabeth Hall 1970
QEH 1978 GLCa007 6
Queen Elizabeth Hall - 22 June 1987
QEH699 7
Queen Elizabeth Hall Refurbishment Work

Whilst the fittings may have changed over the years, Queen Elizabeth Hall Foyer has always been a place for people to enjoy free performances and festivals, gather for pre-concert drinks, or grab a bite to eat with friends.

The restoration of this space stays true to Queen Elizabeth Hall’s original 1960s aesthetic but allows for some much-needed TLC and the installation of some 21st technology, to make it a bright, welcoming and inspiring space for everyone to enjoy come rain or shine.

Be part of our historic Let The Light In refurbishment project 

With your support, improvements to Queen Elizabeth Hall will include a refurbished auditoria with enhanced acoustics and refurbished seats, state-of-the-art production and technical equipment, an upgraded foyer with new glazing to create a light and welcoming space with views over the river, and a new cafe and bar to welcome visitors.

You can show your support in many ways, by donating, naming a seat or even buying exclusive jewellery inspired by Queen Elizabeth Hall’s iconic architecture.

Donate to Let The Light In

Name a seat

Buy exclusive jewellery 

Watch the final Hayward Gallery pyramid go into place

Get a unique view of Hayward Gallery, and London, as the final glass pyramid rooflight is fitted into position on the iconic building.

Our project to Let The Light In on our 1960s arts venues recently reached an important milestone as the final glass pyramid rooflight was lowered into place on top of the Hayward Gallery. And, thanks to some nifty camera-work, you can get a unique pyramid's-eye perspective on the operation.

The Last Roof Pyramid Arrives At Hayward Gallery

However, though the pyramids are in place, our work isn't over. There is still much to do in the final year of the refurbishment project, including:

  • installing the 66 internal coffer linings on Hayward Gallery’s upper gallery ceilings; these go under the rooflights helping to let controlled natural light in for the first time
  • restoring the gallery’s stone floors to their original appearance
  • repaving the famous sculpture terraces and making them waterproof
  • cleaning some of the gallery’s concrete.

Find out more about our historic Let The Light In refurbishment project and how you can get involved.

Let The Light In