Top British Architect Plans First Step in Transforming South Bank Centre

Richard Rogers's proposal would alter London's landmark arts complex on the Thames River

Sir Richard Rogers has earned himself a reputation as the inside-out architect. Now he may be renamed the outside-in man.

The Pompidou Center in Paris, which he designed in partnership with Renzo Piano, displays on its exterior all those pipes and conduits that most buildings hide away internally. The see-through escalators climbing up one external side of that high-tech building of the arts, are also among its most popular features. Similarly, in his Lloyds building in London, Rogers attached glass elevators outside the building.

A giant of international architecture, Rogers is sufficiently a household name in his own country to be featured occasionally on the satirical British TV program `'Spitting Images. He is caricatured by a repulsive, but comically apt, puppet: It wears its internal organs outside its skin.

A certain irony exists in the fact that one of the more recent proposals put forward by the Richard Rogers Partnership is, among other things, much concerned with the concept of outside-in, of bringing indoors what has been outside.

In early September, this proposal won a competition for a master plan to develop London's Thames-side concentration of arts buildings (built in the 1950s and `60s), known as the South Bank Centre.

The deadline for this development is the millennium - 2000 or 2001. In essence, development might be taken to mean ``face-lift.'' Among other things, these buildings are in dire need of cleaning, and their surroundings in need of renovation and care.

The 65.8-million British pounds ($103-million) Rogers proposal is, however, much more radical than mere cosmetics. It involves a kind of neo-Crystal Palace, a vast undulating canopy, a steel and glass covering of interlocking scales.

This will completely hide from view the Hayward Gallery (one of Britain's major exhibition spaces) and two recital halls that share a single building, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Purcell Room. It will not only cover them, it will also produce a microclimate to make the immediate environment of the buildings, and some of their balcony and roof spaces, attractively warm and rain-proof internal public spaces. Rogers has been quoted as saying the conditions, year round, would be similar to Bordeaux, France.

Long an advocate of transforming this part of London into something approaching a people-friendly arts quarter that allows for less-institutional interaction between people and culture (spontaneous performances, for example), the architect sees this proposal as only part of his transforming vision for central London and the river.

The South Bank was the site in 1951 for the Festival of Britain, a kind of fair-cum-exhibition designed to boost the morale and self-respect of post-war Britons.

Rogers has something of that celebratory festival in mind in these 1994 proposals. His canopy will not, however, cover the oldest building on the site, the Royal Festival Hall (RFH).

Built in 1951, it is the only building retained when the Festival of Britain ended. It is still a major concert hall and has much extra foyer space increasingly used for exhibitions, shops, and eating places.

This sets the tone for the atmosphere Rogers envisages for the whole canopied South Bank Centre. But even the RFH will be altered in certain crucial ways, too, some of them designed to respect original architectural intentions. A new auditorium is also proposed by Rogers, between the RFH and the river. But it will be hidden underground. Entry will be through a glazed pavilion not unlike the Louvre pyramid in Paris.

The north-facing setting of these buildings as they stand now suffers from exposure to cold winds and driving rain. Its other drawbacks include murky and desolate lower reaches overshadowed by elevated walkways, and an extremely disorienting lack of clearly signed approaches and obvious front entrances.

Of course the weather can be good, and in summer the South Bank - which also includes the Royal National Theatre, the National Film Theatre, and Museum of the Moving Image, which have their own millennium-improvement plans, is not an unpleasant place to visit. But much of the year one goes there only to be inside as soon as possible. An increase in pleasant internal space can only be applauded.

On the other hand, these plans raise suspicions of a taste war. The concrete brutalism, the uncompromising modernism of the `60s is, to say the least, out of fashion. Perhaps there is a symbolism in hiding these buildings under the Rogers canopy, an act that may express `90s distaste for the `60s. The question is: Are we sure we are right in our dislike for the architecture of 30 years ago?

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