South Bank



The urban history of the South Bank has always been linked to a repetitive cycle of development, decay and regeneration. South Bank’s history is a constant battle between culture and productivity. The first entertainment venues and leisure gardens settled in the South Bank had already gone into decline by the end of the 17th century, when they were replaced by an incipient manufacturing sector that by the 19th century evolved into fully fledged industrialization. However, the railway system and the pollution made for very poor living conditions. The destruction of the WWII offered an excellent opportunity to regenerate the area and to transform it into a public cultural centre as part of  the new welfare society. The South Bank’s present-day landscape owes much to the 1951 Festival of Britain, not because of the cultural centre in which it was destined to become nor the social equality and welfare utopia represented in the Royal Festival Hall, but because of the consumer-culture that was introduced in the Homes and Gardens Pavilion. The arrival of Thatcher’s government in the 1980s marked the end of the heavily subsidised public cultural activity, causing the  South Bank, which still had obsolete industrial fabric, to go further into decay. The extensive public building program of the Millennium regenerated the area, establishing tourism, consumption and subsequently property led regeneration schemes as the economic drivers of the quarter.

Europe is the world’s number one tourist destination, and it already represents the 9.8% of EU GDP (WTTC, 2016), positioning tourism as an important engine of urban and economic regeneration. The “trickle down” effect produced by urban regeneration policies inspired by the Guggenheim Museum’s success, has transformed former industrial derelict spaces such as the South Bank into economically viable quarters supported by tourism economy.  But in the pursuit of this goal the social and environmental viability have been subordinated to the economic interests as the private sector has harnessed public space. From the environmental perspective, the urban regeneration based on the globally consolidated tourism model generates a large ecological footprint – for instance, the amount of water consumed by a tourist is three or four times higher than that of a permanent resident (European Environment Agency, 2017).

‘Many countries rely on tourism as their main income generator, but like all things there is a down side, as tourism can often destroy the very thing that people came to visit in the first place.’ (Parr, 2012)

‘Form Follows Finance’ argued Pain and Knox (2010), and indeed it does; the constant need of the built environment to attract consumers – and therefore, finance – has transformed architecture into a marketing tool by copying the amusement park model, creating contrived urban environments  enhanced by artificial culture. Moreover, the Disneyfication of the space is preceded by the adoption of either global generic or kitsch architectural patterns that contribute to the general flatness and homogeneity of the urban environment regardless of the place where they stand. Even though the South Bank has been marketed as the “cultural quarter of London”, the local communities and the “creative class” responsible for the spontaneous and natural generation of culture have been increasingly squeezed out since ‘the commodification of place – suffocates groups with more imaginative responses’ (Boyle and Rogerson 2001). The transformation of the South Bank into a consumer-oriented atmosphere and the proliferation of high-end residential developments around the public landmarks have priced out local inhabitation. They have seen how the average house price has rocketed since the Millennium Projects and how ‘the increasing dominance of commercial activities has significantly curtailed [public realm’s] sense of inclusivity.’ (Woodman, 2013).

The New Urban Agenda adopted at the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) has already raised the concern about the global urban population growth, which is expected to double by 2050. According to the New Urban Agenda (UN, 2017), the sustainable planning of urgently needed affordable housing should be one of the priorities for current governments and planners. The large scale developments of the South Bank – encouraged by the local administrations eager for private investments in their Boroughs – frustrate the UN’s vision and exacerbated the rampantly increasing shortage of affordable housing and the social segregation in London. The proliferation of  such socially and environmentally unsustainable developments put increasing pressure to densify suburbia or consume more natural land to avoid housing schemes such as the ‘20-square-foot “coffin homes”’ (Weller, 2017) of Hong Kong. The self-regulation of the property and housing markets has proved to be ineffective in many areas of London. There is an critical need to reassign ‘the leading role of national governments, as appropriate, in the definition and implementation of inclusive and effective urban policies and legislation for sustainable urban development’ (UN, 2017).

The South Bank’s urban model is often seen as ‘a regeneration success story’ (Durston, 2017). Nonetheless, this deliberate and partial vision of the reality understood exclusively from the economic perspective, does not take into account the cultural, social and environmental sustainability of the urban fabric in the long-term, while consumer-culture dominates and structures the space.


Extract from “South Bank: From the social utopia of the Festival of Britain to the contemporary commodification of the space”.
The Bartlett School of Architecture

London, UK    2018

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