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Why can't we have a new hall like Paris? If you want to know what divides England and France, it's not a language or a strip of water. It's an attitude to building for the arts.

When a concert hall or opera house starts crumbling in London, officials give a sigh and sign a massive cheque for a modest makeover. In Paris, they go "pouff!" and call in the top architects to produce a new landmark. It costs much the same in the end. (Are you reading me, Boris?)

Here's how it works. London's South Bank Centre-a horrible clutter of three concert halls and an unneeded art gallery-has been the bane of my working life. I won't bore you for long with its shortcomings. Designed in postwar austerity materials as a Royal Festival Hall and augmented with 1960s concrete afterthoughts, it fails every test, acoustic and aesthetic. No part of it is fully fit for purpose. Music lovers have long prayed for its demolition. Artists complain of its frigidity. Burglars have walked off-twice-with its grand piano. It is Britain's biggest guzzler of public arts subsidy.

When it started falling to pieces in the 1990s, officials made the following excuses for not tearing it down and starting again: (1) listed buildings of architectural merit; (2) huge cost; (3) what if that ghastly Zaha Hadid got the job? So they okayed  a refit that ran up a £120 million bill and made the Royal Festival Hall a tiny bit cleaner and tidier. Pound for pound, it was the biggest waste of public money for least public gain since the long-grounded Anglo-French Concorde. Around the same time, the same officials blew £214 million on redoing the Royal Opera House while Glyndebourne knocked down its old country shed and built a glorious, eco-friendly, privately funded opera house for a mere £35 million.

You see, that's the Whitehall way, and Whitehall never learns. This month, plans are going in for a second refit of the South Bank: a £120 million makeover of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and Hayward Gallery, starting next year. Come 2017, trust me, it will look little better than before. A site that ought to display the very best of British creativity blazons instead the crabby limits of public administration. It's enough to make me do a reverse-Depardieu and emigrate to France.

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Ian G. Sadler
July 15th, 2013
12:07 PM
Excellent article. Similar situation in Canada where Quebec supports the arts whereas anglo-Reaganists want to eliminate beauty.

Richard Grossman
July 5th, 2013
10:07 AM
I commend your support of the building of a new concert hall in London but I can hardly see this catching on with Boris at least not with the same enthusiasm with which he’d like to build a new airport. (A Boris concert island in the Thames perhaps?) However I’m slightly taken aback by your apparent surprise at our lack of vision for the arts. We British don’t have the same history of government / monarchical involvement in the arts - or in anything else for that matter - as the French have, we’ve always been far too interested in commerce to bother with culture: ‘a nation of shopkeepers’ as one famous Frenchman said. Not in our DNA. The French on the other hand... Let it not be forgotten that France was the first country to appoint a Minister of Culture. In fact one might argue that Paris is becoming saturated with concert halls, in the past 25 years they’ve built the Opera Bastille, the Cite de la Musique, the renovation of Salle Pleyel and now the Philharmonie! And as far as Tony Blair strumming his guitar goes, surely pop music plays a far greater role in our nation’s makeup than classical music, cue Olympics opening ceremony? As for calling Zaha Hadid ghastly, a bit much, no? It only strengthens the reactionary tone of this article which anyone not a classical music fan must think is just about some old fogey moaning about the predominance of pop music and the state of modern architecture and why, oh why we / he can’t have a new concert hall like they do on the continent! Meanwhile let’s privatise the one we’ve currently got, after advocating state involvement in concert hall building in France?!

Richard Stevens
June 28th, 2013
11:06 AM
Spot on. England is full of unmaintainable, uncomfortable, acoustically poor concert halls and theatres with poor visuals. Exceptions... Cadogan Hall, Cardiff Millenium, Birmingham Symphony Hall, Kings Place Best acoustics anywhere - KKL in Lucerne Worst acoustics - Albert Hall

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