Let the Festival commence..

Thursday 31 May 2007

Acoustics given thumbs up by top conductor

The £115m refurbishment of London’s Royal Festival Hall was unveiled this week and will open to the public on 8 June. The RFH was designed by London County Council’s Architects’ Department for the 1951 Festival of Britain and was one of the few large large performing spaces to be built in the first half of the twentieth century. Architecturally it was a success but it was undermined by poor acoustics and these fundamental errors have dogged the hall ever since it’s opening. History has shown that acoustic technology had not evolved far enough at the time the RFH was built. Engineers had grasped the basics of acoustic principles and understood the characteristics required for a fine concert space, but the designers lacked the sheer wealth of data required to apply the principles to a specific design. Another decade and the result would have been different.

London Architects Allies and Morrison have been involved in the redesign at the RFH since 1992. Partner Graham Morrison told WAN at the launch, “We are delighted to see the building opening at last but in other ways it is very sad because the building has been part of our practice for so long.” The driving force (and major challenge) for the re-furbishment were the appalling acoustics where Sir Simon Rattle infamously cited, “it (the acoustics) made you lose the will to live”. Radical improvements of the auditorium’s acoustics are now in place, the new sound retains the clarity but with greater fullness and richness. The final seal of approval came at the recent launch when internationally renowned Russian conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra Vladimir Jurowski confirmed, “the sound is much better, it is much clearer and richer than it used to be.” Huge sighs of relief could be heard from the architects and managers of the Southbank Centre.

More than £40m of the total project cost has been spent on a new auditorium. The 2,788 seats by Robin Day have been reupholstered and given an extra few inches in leg room.The original 1951 carpet was designed by Peter Moro and Leslie Martin and it covered all the foyers, auditorium and many other spaces around the building. It did however suffer considerable wear and tear over the years. It has now been exactly reproduced by the manufacturers Wilton.

The other major element of the overhaul was the relocation of myriads of offices that had grown around the periphery of the complex to a smart new block nicknamed the “liner” running along the railway line. The reclaimed areas have been lovingly brought back into the realm of public space, vital for contemporary performance spaces.

A new Conran restaurant called Skylon echoes the style of the original 1950s Royal Festival Hall overlooking the Thames is sure to be a success. (It is named after the celebrated metal sculpture which became an iconic feature of the 1951 Festival of Britain.)

The Royal Festival Hall, along with 49 other performing venues, are featured in Michael Hammond’s “Performing Architecture – Opera houses, Theatres and Concert Halls for the Twenty-First Century” which is available on the WAN bookstore.

Click here to view the Performing Architecture book

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