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A new Southbank?

‘We’re building a new Southbank’, announced my host at the Nine Elms Development Organisation, waving an arm over a scale model of the area east of the Power Station.

It certainly was a pretty model: lots of greenery and happy people strolling between dozens of glass-clad buildings of every shape and size. But a new Southbank? It just didn’t look, well, cult enough.

As I sat listening to the details of this vision being outlined to me, I suddenly found myself drifting off into a Mad Men-like dream sequence, picturing a journalistic forefather of mine sat looking at an equally impressive 1950s model of The National Theatre, the Royal Festival Hall and the NFT (not that these buildings would have appeared on the same model given they were built 25 years apart, but let’s not quibble, this is a dream after all) and listening to an Anglicized Don Draper outlining an extravagant plan to create a cultural hub on some derelict and unfashionable land between Waterloo Station and the river. ‘We’ll build it all out of concrete,’ I hear Don saying, ‘all the best stuff is made out of concrete these days. We’ll use great big blocks of the stuff; making a statement for modern culture in juxtaposition to the crumbling buildings of the north bank. It will redefine the south bank of the river!’.

And today that is exactly how The Royal Festival Hall and the National Theatre are viewed. But back in the 50s and 70s when these two cult buildings were first unveiled, the marketing-speak fell on deaf ears as press and public rejected the new buildings as eyesores. So perhaps that’s how we should judge the new designs destined for the Nine Elms development; not in terms of whether we like them now, but do they challenge us enough and are they different enough that they will keep us interested in 50 years time. That’s the true ‘Southbank test’.

Wishing you a very wonderful 2014.

Jon Watt is editor of the Clapham & Battersea and Fulham editions of Time & Leisure Magazine.