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Royal Festival Hall
Belvedere Road, Southbank, London, UK
associated engineer
Scott & Wilson
date  May 1949 - 1951
UK era  Modern  |  category  Building  |  reference  TQ306802
Royal Festival Hall, a notable Modernist building on London's South Bank facing the River Thames, is home to 2,600 seat concert hall. It was the only permanent building designed and built for the Festival of Britain, which took over this site and others in 1951. At the time, London had five orchestras, and Queen's Hall, one of city's main venues, had been destroyed in World War II bombing.
In 1948, the government decided that the site between County Hall and Waterloo Bridge should be prepared for the Festival of Britain, a celebratory event designed to signal an end to the austerity of the war years. It was also a political gesture intended to bolster the country at large.
Sir Hugh Casson (1910-99) was appointed Director of Architecture for the festival, and he brought together a group of young architects and engineers who designed spirited optimistic structures for it. By 1952, all the temporary structures had gone, leaving Royal Festival Hall as a permanent venue, but all their designs had a big impact.
London County Councilís Architecture Department, under Robert Matthew, was appointed to design Festival Hall. Matthew selected his deputy, Leslie Martin (then only 39), Peter Moro and Edwin Williams for the design team. A sketch design was produced by October 1949.
Scott & Wison were appointed engineers in 1948. Guthlac Wilson and William (Jim) Scott had formed their partnership just three years earlier. In 1951, as the Hall was well under way, they merged with Kirkpatrick & Partners. Tragically, Wilson, who was a soil mechanics specialist and oversaw the drainage and foundation work for the Hall, was killed along with his wife in a plane crash in Africa in 1953.
As space on the site was restricted, the auditorium was located on an upper level to allow two levels of reception areas, foyers and restaurants to sit beneath its raked floor. The circulation spaces face the river frontage, which can been through the building's glazed north-east facade. The roof structure is plated steel trusses with curved upper booms and the building's frame is in situ reinforced concrete. The decision to use the latter partly reflected the scarcity of steel in the post-war period.
There were two main acoustic requirements ó those of the auditorium and the need to limit noise from outside, specifically from the multiple rail lines and Hungerford Rail Bridge right next door. Both mechanically transmitted and air-born exterior noise were issues. Acoustic consultant Mr Hope Bagenal (Buildign Research Station) recommended a double skin for the whole building: two solid walls with a continuous air space between. The auditorium acoustic was tuned using a combination of reflective and absorbent wall and ceiling panels.
Foundation construction began in May 1949. Mass concrete was preferred over piling because the brownfield site, which formerly housed the Lion Brewery, was covered in an irregular network of old foundations, and there was risk of inconsistent loadbearing capacity. General excavation went down 4m below goundwater level. Using a ring of well points, the water level was reduced to allow work to commence. Equilibrium was reached with the reduced level by pumping 80,000 gallons of water per day during the works.
The foundation stone was laid in 1949 by the then Prime Minister, Clement Atlee.
The auditorium floor is supported by a grid of slender circular-section concrete columns, providing large uncluttered foyer spaces. Stability is provided by the four concrete stairwell assemblies, one at each corner, which buttress the auditorium floor. The inner wall of the building stands floor to roof without any thickening or tie-backs in order to maintain the necessary acoustic air gap. During construction, these walls stood 18m high before being stiffened by a combination of carefully positioned galleries and piers. This made for very complicated shuttering and concrete work.
The roof trussses were delivered to site in halves, then bolted together and erected in pairs from staging. They were rolled into position using a high level trolley and lowered onto their bearing points. The concrete work was completed by the end of September 1950 ó the whole of the superstructure having been completed in just 12 months.
Royal Festival Hall opened on 3rd May 1951 at a ceremony attended by George VI and Queen Elizabeth. A series of inaugural concerts followed, conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent and Sir Adrian Boult. In 1954, a splendid organ with 7,700 pipes, designed by Ralph Downes and built by Harrison & Harrison, was added.
In 1964, the building was substantially altered, and it was refitted again in the 1990s to meet new safety standards for public areas. In 2005-7 major renovation work was undertaken, directed by architect Allies and Morrison. A major aim of this work was to improve the acoustic performance of the auditorium and to replace the outdated heating and ventilation systems. With these alterations came the addition of new retail areas, and a few original features of the building were removed.
In 1988, the building was listed as Grade I on the nation's heritage register, the first post World War II building to be thus recognised.
Architect: London County Council Architects Department, Sir Robert Matthew, Sir Leslie Martin, Peter Moro, Edwin Williams
Supervising engineers: Guthlac Wilson and William Scott
Acoustic design: Hope Bagenal
Contractor: Holland, Hannen & Cubitts
Steel fabrication: Redpath & Brown
Steel reinforcement: Hom River
Heating and ventilation: Matthew Hall & Co Ltd
Research: ND
"South Bank Exhibition, Festival of Britain" exhibition guide, HMSO, 1951
"A Tonic to the Nation: The Festival of Britain, 1951"
by Mary Banham and Bevis Hillier (eds), Thames & Hudson, London 1976
"London County Council Architects (act.c. 1940-1965)" by Elain Harwood,
in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
"Festival of Britain: Some examples of Britainís Contribution to Engineering" by RW Mountain, Association of Consulting Engineers
"A Guide to the Architecture of London" by Edward Jones & Christopher Woodward, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London 2009

Royal Festival Hall