“This is a public building, so you’re welcome to come up whenever you’re passing,” is the repeated refrain of our tour guide for the evening at the National Theatre. And it’s worth repeating as it’s a fact we often forget about many of London’s most famous landmarks. We’re uncommonly lucky to live in a city where we can freely walk around so many architectural treasures, but it’s a privilege few of us take advantage of.
That’s partially why the National Theatre has introduced Concrete Reality, a new architecture tour around the South Bank’s Brutalist behemoth, for its 40th anniversary year. Its Tours and Visiting office has been running backstage tours since the theatre opened in March 1976, later adding a costume tour to its schedule.
While there have been architecture events, the building has been considered too controversial to merit a tour. In a 2001 Radio Times poll of British buildings, it featured in both the top five most hated and top five most loved lists. But perceptions are changing and now it regularly appears on Londoners’ wishlists for September’s annual Open House weekend.
“I think its time has come,” says Alison Rae, who heads up a team of five in the Tours and Visiting office. “We know that people have strongly held views and now it seems it’s OK to be ‘out’ about saying you like it.”
She notes that the National “would have been something of a shock to the system” when it opened, yet it had a couple of fans, notably poet John Betjemen, who said it was “a lovely work”, and Prince Charles who described it as “a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting.”
The tour takes its name from a book written by Patrick Dillon, the architect in charge of NT Future, an £83m refurbishment that saw many parts of the building taken apart and put back together again, repurposed for the needs of a modern theatre.
The first revelation of the tour for me was the notion that London’s second most famous Brutalist development after the Barbican probably isn’t Brutalist at all. Architect Denys Lasdun, who was interviewed by Laurence Olivier for the job, didn’t consider it such and many of the architecture students the National took on trials of the Concrete Reality tour didn’t think so either.
Every element of a truly Brutalist building serves a practical function, but with the pressure off to take your seat and turn off your phone, there’s plenty of time to notice the myriad decorative touches scattered throughout the National.
A multitude of fun facts unfold during the hour-and-a-half tour around the five acre site, which packs in three auditoriums, rehearsal spaces, prop, costume and carpentry workshops, dressing rooms, restaurants, bars and a bookshop. Highlights change, depending on the time of your visit and what’s on stage that day, but you’re sure to hear about the design mechanism that prevents the National from “floating down the Thames” when it rains, why you’re technically not allowed to clean it, and Lasdun’s original plan for a neighbouring opera house (it’s now IBM’s HQ).
The architect himself always envisioned a time when his theatre, built 40 years ago on an unloved pivot on the river, would be the centre of a cultural hub like the South Bank. “I want to be surrounded by life day and night,” he said, “and I hope that one day, it will stand at the centre of a regenerated part of the city.”
The National Theatre’s Concrete Reality architecture tour cost £12.50pp. For a full list of dates and times, visit nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/architecture-tours/whats-on