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National Theatre's Nicholas Hynter Objects to Southbank Centre Development


The National Theatre's departing artistic director Nicholas Hynter had a lot to say when it came to the development plans for the Southbank Centre. Hynter recently submitted a 3,000+ word objection to the Lambeth Council regarding the project, which he claims would have a negative effect on the arts area.

Read his full objection below:

The National Theatre is a close and supportive neighbour to the Southbank Centre ("SC") but over the last few months we have noted with growing concern the scale of the Festival Wing proposals. Having now read the full application and reviewed the details with our Board we regret that we must make a formal objection to the applications submitted on behalf of the South Bank Centre for planning permission (application ref. 13/02014/FUL) and listed building consent (application ref. 13/02016/LB). Our primary concerns are as follows:

1. The adverse impact of the Liner building on the setting of the Grade II* listed National Theatre, particularly in views from Hungerford Bridge

2. The adverse impact of the Liner building on views from the terraces of The National Theatre

3. The massing and scale of the glass buildings will not complement but damage the perception of an arts quarter on the South Bank bookended by the Grade I lisTEd Royal Festival Hall and II* National Theatre

4. The perception of an arts quarter will further be damaged by the wedge-like effect of the Liner building, marking a clear demarcation between two great arts institutions much more emphatically than Waterloo Bridge currently does

5. The privatisation of the public terrace outside the Hayward Gallery, currently an important and unrestricted link between the National and the SC (though much in need of refurbishment)

6. The impact of the loss of sunlight to public spaces, including Theatre Square and the terraces


MDO 94 in the Lambeth UDP states the following:
The South Bank Arts Complex - includes National Theatre, Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Hayward Gallery

The redevelopment of the South Bank Arts Complex as Britain's premier arts and cultural centre is supported. This is subject to?.

??.(c) The protection of the listed buildings and their settings (Royal Festival Hall - Grade I, and National Theatre and Waterloo Bridge - Grade II) and enhancement of the South Bank Conservation Area and the South Bank Complex as an architectural group.

Saved Policy 41 of the Lambeth UDP further states:

(f) Setting - Development which adversely affects the setting of a listed building, or significant views of a listed building, will be refused.

The National Theatre is a grade II* listed building, completed in 1976. We are currently in the middle of a sensitive re-organisation of many areas of the building, made possible by the construction of a new building to the rear. The project grew from a carefully compiled Conservation Management Plan, which was reviewed at all stages by English Heritage, Lambeth Planning and Conservation officers, the Twentieth Century Society and associates of the late Denys Lasdun, the architect. We have spent a great deal of time trying to understand and absorb the principles on which Lasdun designed this magnificent building.

From the very beginning, when first invited to express interest in designing The National Theatre in 1963, Lasdun's sketches were of the views across and through the site, focusing in particular on views from the bridges and to distant London landmarks diagonally along the river. These drawings include the annotations "Space continued by river" and "Sweep of river scale", indicating that the views to and from the bridges were the fundamental basis of his design approach to The National Theatre. (Lasdun Archive, RIBA Drawings Collection: PB909/1(1-5))

This preoccupation with the surroundings of The National Theatre remained central to Lasdun's thinking, with many of his design-models including all the buildings around the site in order that his architecture would respond specifically to the pattern of buildings and voids around it. He talked frequently of the beauty of the site, Prince's Meadows, on the King's Reach bend in the river. William Curtis's book Denys Lasdun: architecture, city, landscape, which draws on extensive interviews with the architect as well as upon his archive, discusses at length the importance of the formative and critical relationship between the theatre, the bridges, and the sweep of the river which surrounds the theatre.

The visual effect of this bend is most appropriately viewed from the downstream side of the Hungerford Bridge, which is part of the London Views Management Framework. From here the full panorama of the arts buildings is visible in one alignment, with St Paul's to the left and the new towers of the City and London Bridge in the background. The re-lighting of The National Theatre in 2007 and the complementary lighting of the Festival Wing a few years later have together created one of the signature nighttime views in London.

It is clear from the applicant's own visual included in the Heritage Townscape and Visual Assessment that irreparable harm will be done to this vista.

The Gerald Eve Planning Statement comments as follows:

8.97 The HTVA states that from the downstream pavement of the Hungerford Bridge, the
Liner Building will cause some harm to the significance of The National Theatre. (our underlining)
However, the report sets out that this harm is limited by several factors. Firstly stating
that this is a moving view and the identity of The National Theatre and its complete form
will be understood by anyone visiting this viewing place. In addition that the identity is
evident as one enters the bridge on the Westminster side, from the points there is no or
limited occlusion.

8.98 Secondly, the HTVA states that the visual interaction is between two cultural buildings, whose use has public value reinforcing the communal value of the site. Thirdly the HTVA states that the setting is in other respects either unaffected (in medium and distant views) or enhanced (through improvements to the way the area functions).

8.99 Overall, the HTVA concludes that the setting of The National Theatre is not harmed and its significance is either sustained or enhanced. Stating that if there is any individual
harm, which is a point of judgement, then this harm is clearly less then substantial and so
should be weight (sic) against substantial public benefits of refurbishing the Buildings and
making improvements to the cultural cachet of the Southbank Centre.

These are puzzling and contradictory assertions, taking their lead from the Montagu Evans Heritage, Townscape and Visual Assessment which in turn states (para 8.61) that the "harm is limited because the identity and destination function of the building in the townscape has already been established in the viewer's consciousness through understanding and approach views on this very bridge."

So the complex matrix of significance in the London View Management Framework is reduced to a wayfinding function: if you can see the National from the north side of the bridge, then you will know it is still there as you approach the middle, even though most of it has disappeared. What, then, is the point of mid-bridge view LVMF 17B.1 in the first place, if not to mark the full panorama of arts buildings on King's Reach.

Secondly, of the two cultural buildings referred to in 8.98 (the Liner and the Glass Pavilions), the scale of the former is dictated not just by the cultural value, but also by the commercial: the top floor will be for A3 usage and the bottom (ie the second floor above the level of Waterloo Bridge), though notionally designated as an arts "Collision Space", will in fact be let to complementary arts organisations for at least ten years. So in fact the volume of the building that occludes the view of The National Theatre is largely dictated by the revenue it generates. Nonetheless (8.99) "the HTVA concludes that the setting of The National Theatre?and its significance is either sustained or enhanced" - a puzzling ambivalence - but, if after all there is deemed to be harm, this should be weighed against "the improved cultural cachet of the Southbank Centre."

Finally, if all these benefits are not sufficient to persuade The National Theatre that its historic setting has no intrinsic self-affirming importance, we are referred to paragraph 134 of the National Planning Policy Framework:

134. Where a development proposal will lead to less than substantial harm to the
significance of a designated heritage asset, this harm should be weighed against the public benefits of the proposal, including securing its optimum viable use.

"Significance" may produce a number of possible interpretations, but it is surely not coterminous with "destination function."


There is a common fallacy reflected in the above paragraphs: that Southbank, the brand, is synonymous with South Bank, the area. Over emphatic boundary-marking is inappropriate to the audience that comes to the arts buildings and moves easily between them, and those who simply come to the Queen's Walk to enjoy the river views and the overspills of animation. The National Theatre is already at one remove, sequestered by the 50s NFT infill that prevents the landing of the majestic final arch of Waterloo Bridge at the front, and by the degraded environment under the Bridge ramp to the rear, poorly lit and grimy (and currently the subject of constructive discussions between Lambeth and ourselves regarding a re-lighting exercise).

The important connecting route between The National Theatre and the Hayward terrace underneath Waterloo Bridge will need very clear signage if the public are to be persuaded that what was once public unglazed space remains open and accessible. The night time closure of this route, as recommended in the Secured By Design report and accepted in the Design and Access document section 5.3 gives us grave concern and we urge the Council to seek clarification about opening hours and the likely frequency of private functions in the space that might further restrict access.

We fear that the Liner building will be both a component of, and over arching metaphor for the further segmentation of the most dynamic arts complex in the country, if not the world.


"The Glass Pavilion responds to the Lyttelton Theatre flytower on the other side of Waterloo Bridge which when approaching in either direction from Waterloo Bridge will appear to complement each other?..The complete site should be seen as a whole - Royal Festival Hall, National Theatre, Southbank Centre and Jubilee Gardens. Not one should be dominant as they work together and are individual but all linked by people and human activity. The new composition successfully avoids over deferring to either the 1960's group of buildings or The Royal Festival Hall and acts as a counterpoint with the strong rectangular forms to the existing geometry and provides a new dignity to the existing buildings which when taken as a whole establishes a status of civic building equivalent to The National Theatre and Royal Festival Hall."
Design and Access Statement, p 14

The Glass Pavilion's response to the Lyttelton flytower is to oversail it by eleven metres, and stop only two metres short of the Olivier flytower. The avoidance of deference to two classic listed buildings, the NT and the grade I Royal Festival Hall, is certainly achieved, though we would argue that the two arts buildings, currently working at the peak of their ability and output, to worldwide recognition, might be felt to have earned their measure of respect. The creation of a transparent rehearsal room large enough to accommodate a massed orchestra and choir is admirable, and fully in keeping with the opening up of the arts process that runs like an armature through our own NT Future project. But we believe the architectural expression of the space required to be overscale and dominant.
The London Plan (Mayor's policy document)

The Mayor will (Policy 2.11f) "extend the offer and enhance the environment of strategic cultural areas along the South Bank..."

2.51 This area is also home to many of the capital's (and the country's) leading cultural facilities, with cultural quarters of strategic importance along the South Bank and around the West Kensington and Bloomsbury museum quarters. These will be protected, and opportunities to enhance or extend them, to improve the quality of their environments or to develop new quarters in appropriate locations will be considered sympathetically.

7.4A Development should have regard to the form, function, and structure of an area, place or street and the scale, mass and orientation of surrounding buildings. It should improve an area's visual or physical connection with natural features.

7.22 New development, especially large and tall buildings, should not have a negative impact on the character or amenity of neighbouring sensitive land uses.

The view from the Olivier terrace, while not part of any recognised framework, is of considerable importance to The National Theatre, and is an important element of the NT Future project. The HTVA report correctly acknowledges the unresolved character of the "rear views" of the QEH and Hayward (HTVA 5.71). However, for all the uncompromising nature of the view, the terrace still offers a glimpse of the pristine RFH between the two Brutalist buildings, and in the more distant view of Embankment Place suggests the sweep of the bend in the river.

All of this will disappear behind the Liner Building, which will cantilever one full storey above the bridge level, thus presenting to our largest terrace the structural beams and supports. We are unable to find anything else in the application that might reassure us that the result will preserve or enhance the current variegated view.


The National Theatre has two large public spaces that benefit from afternoon and evening sun: the Olivier Terrace and Theatre Square. As referred to earlier, the former is a key beneficiary of the NT Future programme and will be extensively upgraded and re-landscaped.

Theatre Square was created in 1997 and has been from the outset the location of the outstandingly popular and free programme of public entertainment known as Watch This Space, running from late June to mid September every year. WTS has been suspended in 2013 to make way for The Shed, an innovative temporary theatre replacing the Cottesloe during its refurbishment, but will return next year.

We are very concerned about overshadowing onto these two spaces and can find nothing in the Daylight and Sunlight Report to give us reassurance. The report states:

In terms of overshadowing, there are a number of amenity spaces surrounding the Site
along the Southbank and outside the Royal Festival Hall for which consideration of the
hours in sun is required as per the BRE Guidelines 2011.

These are:

A - Queens Walk
B - Royal Festival Hall Terrace
C - Royal Festival Hall (marketplace)
D - Whitehouse Garden
This list refers us to the study drawing 6672/27 which curiously omits The National Theatre. We urge you to request SC to extend their study area to include these two important and freely accessible amenity areas.

In summary, we consider that the proposed development, in particular the Liner building, by virtue of its siting and scale contravenes relevant national, regional and local planning policies relating to the setting of The National Theatre, a grade II* structure; that the proposed building will abrogate the public perception of a unified cultural quarter; and that the wall effect it creates will undermine the amenity value of the National's largest public open spaces.

The National Theatre building has had, in urban terms, a short existence on Kings Reach, but it has lived in the public imagination since 1907, when Harley Granville Barker published his book A National Theatre. He wrote: "The National Theatre must be its own advertisement - must impose itself on public notice, not by posters and column advertisements in the newspapers, but by the very fact of its ample, dignified and liberal existence. It must bulk large in the liberal and intellectual life of London. It must be visibly and unmistakably a popular institution, making a large appeal to the whole community."

It has been, since 1976, and so it must remain.

We would be grateful if these comments are duly taken into consideration by the Council in the determination of the applications for planning permission and listed building consent. We would also be grateful to receive confirmation of when the application will be determined at committee.

Yours faithfully,

Nicholas Hytner

Photo Credit: Walter McBride / WM Photos

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