Sunday, June 10, 2007

Details, Details

The Overture is the much heralded re-opening event of the Royal Festival Hall. After the long closure to accommodate the refurbishment of the hall the 3 day series of free events has seen a huge crowd enjoying a diverse programme of music, dance and art. The Overture event runs from the 8th to the 10th of June and will present the future artistic programme of the RFH and enable visitors to see the improvements to the building. Public spaces have been opened up to give wider access to parts of the building, catering facilities have been upgraded and the cosmetic changes to the fabric of the building will declutter the building and install fresh materials to the interior, the interior remains sympathetic to the buildings existing 1950’s architectural stylings. All well and good, a refurbishment with integrity and thoughtfulness it seems, as an ex architecture student, albeit for only a short time, I visited the new building on Saturday with an eye less on the events and more with my sights on the improvements to the building and ready to cast a critical gaze on the structure and interior of this famous venue.

Visiting on Saturday evening I was confronted by an enormous crowd enjoying the festivities laid on by the RFH but even through the masses I could see that the access to the riverside has been much improved, this is of course something that any fan of the hall would have hoped for, it is on entering the hall that my reservations creep in. The changes that have allowed more public space to be opened up are a great improvement, no longer does one feel confined to the main hall, the other floors have been cleared, access to these seems somehow more welcoming. In the past these parts of the building seemed a little off limits unless you were being ushered to your seats in the auditorium, the removal of the demarcations of public and audience greatly enhance the experience of moving around the building. The main bar and ballroom seem much more connected, it is now not necessary to stand in the pit in front of the bar to purchase drinks as the floor level has been evened out, all in all the aim to create more space and movement around the building appears to have been very successful, in what was always a very comfortable building to be in that comfort level has been increased.

With the sense of the overall flow of the building taken into account I look at the details and finishes and this is when my reservations creep in, when attending such a grand opening it is always upsetting to see the little details that remain unfinished, it is with my sights on these finishes and details that the evidence piles up. The odd unfinished detail from the build specification is understandable but after 30 minutes of strolling round this lovely building one thing becomes abundantly clear, the final fit of this building has not been completed, not only has it not been completed in a few areas of detail but in almost every detail. Around the building evidence of this mounts up, the famed unique design of the reproduction Wilton carpet is there for all to see but it has not been fitted to completion, all over the surface are the dusty remnants of loose fur balls of unbrushed carpet fibres, seemingly the staff couldn’t find the hoover, perhaps this is just a domestic oversight, a kind of unsightly oversight. Then my eyes rise from foot level to ceiling height to find loose electric cabling attached to the ceiling as the trails end in a tied up mess at eye level, on closer inspection most parts of the building have been left with some sizeable areas of electric work unfinished, hundreds of metres of cables are exposed ready for their final fit, attached to wall and ceilings they snake around at various intervals. Occasionally you can see unplastered plasterboard, in a few cases studwork awaits the final delivery of the board necessary to finish the wall, next to the ball room the staircase has a piece of balustrade missing, health and safety obviously cleared that once the impromptu scaffold pole construction was put in its place. Further problems with the electrical fit are evident, suffice it to say no-one likes to take a piss in the near darkness, maybe a ratio of more than one bulb in three is asking too much. It is the ultimate irony that the diners in the Skylon restaurant ate their meals in impeccable surroundings as a gifted classical pianist gave a recital of the music of Brahms, if she looked out over the audience she would have seen the lowered lights used during performances flickering away like a fluorescent bulb on its last legs. She could not complete her recital because of the malfunctioning piano, perhaps just bad luck or maybe something more telling.
Now before I lose you all with my rantings and moanings I will get to the point, the RFH is a great building, one of my very favourites and these final fit teething snags will be rectified very quickly but it is the wider implications that are important, with thousands of people visiting a great public building to see its grand reopening it is embarrassing that this final fit should be delayed and evident to any that this greatly detracts from what should be a glorious celebration of a national treasure. The implications are this, how many times must we embarrass ourselves with our national failure to complete any public building on time and on budget, how can public trust in the abilities of our planners, architects, engineers and building trades be improved when the name of the Royal Festival Hall may now sit on our lips with the likes of The Millenium Dome, the wobbly bridge and Wembley, the Kings Cross redevelopment has hit planning problems and may well follow in this infamous list. Perhaps the GLA, Government and the London Olympic organising committee should take a long hard look at these other buildings because in 2012 it wont be one building that misses its completion date with a few snags but a whole swathe of our city and it wont be a few thousand Londoners and a handful of tourists who see the failure, the whole worlds eyes will be on us.


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