Save London's Southbank from corporate chains

Philip ClarkTue 7th August 2012

Plans to redevelop space between the Hayward Gallery and Queen Elizabeth Hall are cause for concern

In Sunday’s Observer, the architecture critic Rowan Moore reported on plans, soon to come to fruition, for the existing space between the Hayward Gallery and the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the Southbank in central London is to be ‘redeveloped’ by, as Moore puts it ‘thrusting commercial space into almost every spare void in and around these buildings. They want to put restaurants on the roof and shopping in the undercroft and to the sides. They want to stuff the place, in the words of John Donne, before, behind, between, above, below.’

There’s little point in paraphrasing Moore’s eloquent article – you can read it in its original form here – but emerging from the Royal Festival Hall high on a performance of Bruckner’s Third, or Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, to be confronted by a soulless corporate entity whose only concern is whether you want cream on your mochas, or to super size your fries? How would you feel about that? After a transcendent Pollini Hammerklavier, no doubt you’ll want to chomp on something more nourishing than the strategically standardised, humdrum nosh offered by those chain canteens which, no question about it, will be in the frame to take possession of these lucrative commercial ‘units’. Or perhaps you might just want to sit in peace.

The Southbank as it stands today has indeed evolved from its beginnings as part of Clem Attlee’s post-war pick-me-up 1951 Festival of Britain, a showcase of British art, music, architecture, technology, design and science, and subsequent re-developments have usually remained respectful to its founding ideals. The Queen Elizabeth Hall/Purcell Room complex and Hayward Gallery arrived during the mid-1960s and brought extra scope for cultural discovery. A space expressly designed not to be like the rest of London; a space about having space to think about the world differently.

When I came to live in London in the early 1990s, the Southbank was hardly a foodie’s go-to venue, and I’m not saying it should be a restaurant-free zone: that would be absurd. But there are few more important concerns in London at present than the land-grab of public space for commercial use. The well-documented surrender of public land to the private sector for the Olympic Games represents the problem at its most visible and public. But, thinking about the campaign to save Gaby’s (the deli open for business on the Charing Cross Road since 1965) from being sold to a chain restaurant, or a similar initiative to keep chain coffee stores away from Cecil Court, London’s famous street of second-hand bookshops (both campaigns supported by former Gramophone columnist Simon Callow), it soon becomes personal. Gaby’s is an old muso’s haunt. If rents rocket in Cecil Court we could lose Travis & Emery, London’s only remaining dedicated second-hand supplier of scores and sheet music, next door to where Mozart stayed in 1764.

Am I being a precious, muesli-crunching Guardianista for wanting to preserve houses of culture from chain commerce? The writer and London chronicler Iain Sinclair pointed out recently that London increasingly resembles a less attractive version of romanticised computer-generated models for what our city ‘could’ be, and he’s spot on. Standardisation robs cities of their heart and soul, like a corporate blitz. And so, no, I don’t want to walk out from the Festival Hall, my head filled with music, into a part of town like any other; a symphony of brand names, a counterpoint of logos and corporate ‘have a nice day’ insincerity. Count me out of that. Music deserves better.

It’s the moneymen, real life incarnations of the Bob Hoskins character in The Long Good Friday, who have the upper hand in this city now. But there’s a real cultural imperative for keeping one part of our city at least firmly out of their hands.

Philip Clark

Philip Clark is a critic for Gramophone and The Wire, and a composer-turned-improviser. He tweets as @MusicClerk.

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