Building a new audience

7th April 1995 at 01:00
At present it's only a computer-enhanced photograph, but, after last week's Pounds 1 million lottery grant for a feasibility study, the "Crystal Palace" enclosing London South Bank's concrete hulks is set to become reality. When it is completed - to coincide with the millennium - it will transform not only the cultural life of the capital, but the character of the capital itself.

The whole of the South Bank complex is due to be united under Richard Roger's vast, wave-like canopy of glass, with the windswept walkways and filthy underground canyons erased for ever.

With the Waterloo international rail terminal just to the south, and a new bridge - possibly a travelator - crossing the Thames to the north, the project will finally feel like what it already is - the greatest arts centre in the world.

Meanwhile, the Centre is taking drastic steps to combat its continuing economic crisis. With a site the size of Trafalgar circus to maintain, and with its "classical" audience steadily diminishing, it has been forced to repackage itself, and reshape its programmes, for a younger, less traditional clientele. Traditionalists are now accusing its director Nicholas Snowman of selling out, and trading high artistic ideals for populist policies: Snowman is in a painful dilemma.

The truth is that he is currently managing to ride both horses at once: rarefied seasons like the recent one devoted to Luciano Berio are scheduled alongside events you would normally expect to find at Wembley.

If two thirds of the Centre's audience is over 50, the other third is in its vigorous youth, with a sizeable chunk consisting of children who attend the concerts and literary events designed expressly for them.

What he terms "drop-in culture" is alive and well and thriving in the form of free foyer events. This month's programme includes everything from a performance of Bach's solo cello suites to the folk dance band Gas Mark Five, from jazz concerts to Moroccan-Andalusian fusion. While the Arvo Part Festival - new music from the Baltic States - is going on inside the Festival Hall, a mass dance workshop will take place in the ballroom below. The place has come a long way since its strait-laced beginnings.

The Rogers master-plan includes a new recital hall to be built underground, with the Purcell Room being retained as a rehearsal room for dance as well as music. The Hayward will be extended. The skate boarders who have made the "undercroft" space their own will not be chased away entirely: Snowman and Rogers like the idea of them, and will make sure that they still have somewhere to practise their stunts.

For architecture buffs, however, one fascinating development is already taking place. It is not generally known that the Festival Hall was never actually completed, and, as it happens, its architect Leslie Martin is still around. With his encouragement, the architectural "transparency" aimed at in the original plan is now being realised. Next month, for example, the excrescences underneath the main stairway will be ripped out, so that it ascends, as it was meant to, over nothing but light and air.

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