The Royal Festival Hall – the first important public building completed after the war – was inaugurated in 1951 during the Festival of Britain. A team of young architects developed an “egg in the box” theme: the egg (the auditorium) hovers above the box, which houses bars, restaurants, etc. This arrangement protected the auditorium from the noise and vibrations emanating from the train and subway. With its spacious lobbies and a lively interplay of a variety of colours, patterns, textures and painstaking detailing, the building does not let on to the fact that building materials were scarce. The architects themselves went down to the docks to secure the best materials from the most recent shipments.
Since the first renovation in the 1960s – in which, e.g., the facade facing the Thames was altered – the lobby has become increasingly cluttered with shops, cafes and offices. And the auditorium’s acoustics were problematic from the beginning, particularly for classical music. For this refurbishment, which includes the Royal Festival Hall grounds, the clarity and openness of the original design were to be recovered. The client is seeking to create a well-frequented meeting place, not just for concert-goers, along the South Bank’s cultural mile. In order to reinstate the foyer’s spaciousness, the auxiliary programme had to be accommodated elsewhere: a slender bar along the railway line not only houses offices, shops and bars, it also conceals the delivery. Underneath the former pedestrian walkway along the Thames, more shops and restaurants are cloaked in a new glass facade. From here, two stairs – one in the building and one outdoors – lead to a large terrace in front of the concert hall. New pergolas above these stairs link the outdoor spaces facing onto the Thames.
The auditorium required modern stage technology to improve production possibilities and make flexible configurations possible. The auditorium was modified to make it more comfortable and accessible. But above all, it was crucial that the acoustics finally be brought up to par with the hall. One of the main problems was the reverberation time, which was considered too short. The auditorium soaked up too much sound and reflected too little. A thorough analysis – including tests, interviews with musicians, models and computer models, as well as a study trip to other European concert halls – came to the conclusion that no single major intervention could provide the decisive improvement. So the architects and acousticians set about improving the acoustics in multiple small steps, without changing the design and character of the auditorium. All of the cladding in the auditorium was removed. The thin wood panels which were originally intended to absorb low frequencies were outfitted to reflect bass frequencies. In addition the original cavities behind the cladding were lined in order to link the skin’s surfaces with the concrete’s mass. To prevent sound absorption, they went so far as to fill in grooves in the lateral “Copenhagen” panels with barely visible wood strips. The lightweight ceiling panels were replaced with solid, sound-reflecting elements. Even the reworked seating was provided with more mass. Another problem was that the musicians could not hear each other well on the stage, because the sound was projected almost completely out to the audience. To remedy this the walls behind the stage were rearranged and the original undulating plywood reflectors above the stage were replaced with suspended acoustic wings.