The Royal Festival Hall conundrum


From the blog

The Royal Festival Hall conundrum

Posted 29 September 2009 12:00 by martin

This was the scene at the Royal Festival Hall terrace in London the other afternoon:

RFH terrace

A buzzy, colourful place where people can relax over a drink and soak up the sun.

Just a few years ago, however, this very same spot, on a similar afternoon, would have been practically deserted.  A grey, unappealing expanse of concrete.

Strange, because for at least the past 15 years (probably a lot longer):
  • the river (funnily enough) still flowed past
  • the London skyline was still laid out in all its splendour
  • the sun still drenched this spot all afternoon and evening until it set behind the north bank
  • the river walkway was still there
  • the area still hosted big employers like Shell, IBM and IPC magazines
  • nearby Waterloo station was still the busiest in the UK
  • the RFH, the National Theatre, The Hayward Gallery and all the other arts venues were still there
  • the terrace was still free of traffic
So why, given all these things in its favour, didn't this prime location take off as a place to meet decades ago?

Of course, some things certainly have changed over the years.  There are now the two great honeypot visitor attractions of Tate Modern and the Millennium Wheel, massively boosting the pedestrian traffic along the river.  And there have been countless other pieces of urban regeneration all along the South Bank, not least some quite subtle, but important, upgrades to the urban realm:  paving, signposting, traffic calming, street furniture, planting, better connectivity etc.

But it's still not enough to explain why the RFH terrace has proved such a spectacular hit over the past couple of years.

And I'm left wondering whether it's down to this:

RFH bar


The terrace now has an external bar, with a liberal scattering of table and chairs.

So for almost zero cost (in fact, I presume the huge profits they must be making on the booze are cross-subsidising the arts venues) a terrace that is almost entirely physically unchanged has been transformed into one of London's premier meeting spots.

Some people may not be entirely happy with this transformation – there are now some pretty ostentatious scenes of champagne-swilling hyper-consumption (anyone told them there's a recession on?), and a tiny bottle of beer will set you back £3.20 (tip – go inside to the RFH's long bar and you'll get a pint for exactly the same price).  On balance, however, I think it's a change for the better.

But it does go to show how fickle this 'urban transformation' business can be.  You can have sun, trees, a river, a view, world-class arts venues, no noisy cars…but until you add a magic ingredient, you may not have success.

And in this case, that ingredient appears to be alcohol.

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  1. Zoe says:

    September 29th, 2009 at 2:24 pm (#)

    I think the provision of seating was probably the key thing, and companies don't do that unless they make some money from it. It could equally sell tea & water, or ice cream and people would sit there, but alchohol makes more money.

  2. Phoenix says:

    October 20th, 2009 at 11:07 am (#)

    Hmm. There's been a massive amount of work done to improve the public realm, signage, etc. Check

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