The RFH was originally opened in 1951 as the centerpiece of the arts complex built on the south bank of the Thames River. It was intended to be London's principal classical concert venue, host to resident ensembles such as the Philharmonia Orchestra and the London Philharmonic as well as touring ensembles. But the acoustic proved disappointing: the sound for the audience was somewhat dry and drab, while orchestral musicians found it difficult to hear each other on stage. In addition, various additions and alterations over the decades rendered the hall, and much of the Southbank complex as a whole, dreary, gray and uninviting.
The renovation has changed all that. The architects in charge of the project, Allies and Morrison, have upgraded both the exterior and interior, with a glass fa‹ade overlooking the Thames (and a riverside plaza) filling the public spaces with light. Famed acousticians Kirkegaard Associates have overseen the upgrade of the 2,788-seat auditorium, and the results have already been praised by conductors Vladimir Ashkenazy and Simon Rattle, who have given the place "test drives" with orchestras. (Rattle once gave one of the most withering criticisms of the old hall's acoustics, saying that 30 seconds there made him lose the will to live.) Amenities have been improved (notably, there are now far more ladies' rooms than before); staff offices and production facilities have been moved to an adjacent building to free up more space for the public; many outdoor areas that were service roads or spaces under concrete overhangs have been opened up. We've assembled a set of photographs of the revamped complex below.
Celebrations in honor of the new-and-improved RFH began this past weekend with The Overture, 48 nonstop hours of music, dance, spoken word, film and visual arts. Tonight is the Royal Festival Hall's official opening, with a First Night Gala featuring all four resident orchestras — London Philharmonic Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra, London Sinfonietta and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment — 250-plus musicians, some of whom have never collaborated before.
For more information about the Royal Festival Hall and the Southbank Centre, visit www.southbankcentre.co.uk.
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All photos by Richard Bryant / arcaid.co.uk.