Taking Rubbings: An Exploration of Surface Texture at The Southbank Festival Wing, London 2013-2018
B.A. Zanditon is a London-based artist and writer. She received her BAFA from Chelsea College of Art & Design in 2011. She makes work in and about spaces in response to things she finds and is interested in how we collect and codify. Her responses frequently rely on archival methodologies resulting in work that documents her research activities.
Taking Rubbings describes a rubbings project she undertook at the Southbank, London in 2015 whilst the Hayward Gallery and Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room were closed for refurbishment. In April 2018, as part of the Southbank Centre’s Concrete Dreams weekend to celebrate the reopening of the QEH, she ran a rubbings workshop to introduce participants to the building’s construction process and encourage an appreciation of surface texture.
In 2013 and 2014, she took part in ALL making site based works: her 2013 piece, Thresholds, mapped the boundaries of ALL itself. In 2014 she made A Cambridge Atlas. Based on Gwen Reverat’s, A Cambridge Childhood, it mapped the places and events in the book against current day Cambridge. Both of these projects were conceived with the endpoint in mind unlike the rubbings project at the Southbank which remains unfinished.
This article first appeared in Lo Squaderno 48, published in June 2018 (http://www.losquaderno.professionaldreamers.net/).
Introduction and objectives
As an artist my interest is in site, surface, and memory trace. I recently discovered ‘surface’ as an area of academic discourse. This came as both a revelation and a relief – I’ve spent the past five years obsessing over an area of the Southbank known as the Festival Wing comprising the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room (QEH), a structure containing two concert halls and a large foyer, and the Hayward Gallery (HG). I had long wanted to take rubbings there and, in September/October 2015, spent two weeks, after the site had closed for refurbishment, making rubbings and latex casts to catalogue both interior and exterior surfaces. I joke that the rubbings are the nearest I can get to becoming one with the buildings: enmeshing myself into their textures.
In the 1960’s the London County Council’s architects (LCC – the municipal authority for London) were responsible for making a site with cultural buildings to sit between the Royal Festival Hall and Waterloo Bridge. Festival Wing finished the redevelopment of the land used for the Festival of Britain – the signal that we were embracing Modernism and turning toward the future.
I am struck by the thought that what was actually being created, particularly by the Hayward, was a fortress: a promise that the art within would be guarded and kept safe. The building is uncompromising: it juts out at odd angles. It hurts you to rub against it – whether you touch the fine or the coarse aggregate – when I press my flesh into its surface I am temporarily marked. To make my rubbings, I placed paper to catch texture and pattern, the residual marks of making: the trace of formwork.
To me, these buildings were and are wonderful: Portland cement, aggregates (the proportion of flint in the coarse aggregate carefully monitored to be not greater than one third of the whole by weight ) dug up from British earth, mixed with water and pressed into a framework of carefully selected soft wood, the texture of stone mingling with its grain: read this, the surface shouts, though not everyone can hear it. On my last day at the site, a young man stopped to watch. “I never noticed the texture before,” he said, “was it deliberate?”
I have always liked concrete. Until I began making rubbings at the Southbank, I did not know anything about how concrete buildings are made. I could see the traces: a grain of wood, or the creamy smoothness of a polished surface, I was aware of round marks – sometimes filled flush and sometimes left indented on a building’s face – but I knew nothing about formwork or shuttering, bolts or rebar.
Before, I was intrigued by the mystery of surface texture; my new knowledge still cannot ‘explain’ the deep pleasure I get from seeing how buildings feel. It is not just that with in situ concrete the surface and structure are indelibly linked but that there is a visceral pleasure in the solidity of concrete that is different from the slick visual enjoyment one might get from a surface of reflective glass and steel.
In my efforts to ‘understand the site’, I wanted to see plans of the buildings and eventually found my way to the London Metropolitan Archive (March and September 2015) where I found the original tender documents issued by the LCC Architects’ Department; documentation regarding the development of the pyramid lights, the original contract with the builder, Higgs & Hill and the Ove Arup site drawings. The tender documents provided meticulous and detailed instruction as to exactly how the concrete was to be made, where the materials were to come from, how testing would be carried out and how repairs made to concrete that was not sound. Being neither architect nor engineer, I was fascinated – it was a new world. It was a bit like looking at an x-ray of a body – not quite sure what you are looking at but thrilling to see beneath the skin.
Looking for images of the site, after it was finished and before any changes were made, I visited the BFI Mediatheque to view old footage of the area. I looked at old issues of Concrete Quarterly  and found original site photographs on the RIBA website , but none of this revealed the soul of the buildings to me.
The impetus to approach the Southbank came in the Spring of 2013 when the latest redevelopment plan for the Festival Wing was published and included removing some features (balustrades where a new staircase would bring people up from ground to terrace level) and covering over others (a glass box over the space between the two buildings would alter patterns of weathering). I approached a contact explaining that I wanted to do a project cataloguing some of the surfaces – preserving the history and memory of those that would be removed and those that would be enclosed. I was put in touch with the then head of estates who shared my enthusiasm for concrete and agreed to give me permission to make work.
During 2013-15, I spent time walking around the site, taking pictures, doing tentative mapping, trying to get the feel of it.
I felt I needed to ‘get’ it to know how to proceed but it’s lack of regularity and visual clarity perplexed me.
I considered various approaches, for example, taking the conceptual route: rubbings at shoulder height at x intervals around the perimeter. But there were no places where you could do a complete walk around the exterior of the building itself at the same level. And it was too random. I realised that what I wanted to capture was a range of materials and textures and, in particular, anything that might change materially with the revamp. I had agreed I and my assistants (Dan Dowling and Simon Wallace assisted me at various times) would work at body height and not require special equipment. In August 2014, Dan and I spent a day on site looking at surfaces (did I want to catalogue spalled concrete? old, now blocked, drains?) and trying out a range of papers and rubbing materials.
We found that the efficacy of the materials depended very much on the underlying surface texture. We also discovered how idiosyncratic rubbing styles are: Dan, a tall young man, pressed down hard to make strong dark marks. I, 70, and with an old rotor cuff injury, developed a light, even pressured stroke that would let the underlying texture emerge and keep the mark of my hand to a minimum.
I wanted to make latex casts as an alternative way to explore surface. I had experimented in my studio, making small casts of breeze blocks and printing from them.
I realised, when I made the first print, that what I was exposing was the surface’s negative space. Dan and I made some successful casts that I could print from and I played with making a cast from a cast to show iterations of negative and positive space but in the long term the casts were not successful. I subsequently saw the work of Jorge Otero-Pailos, large-scale latex casts of Westminster Hall, and realised the insufficiency of the scale of my ambition. 
The print on the right is from a cast of a large aggregate panel, rear of Queen Elizabeth Hall, showing the negative space. The print on the left was made by taking a cast of the original latex cast and making a print from that, giving a positive print with, however, some degradation compared to the more detailed image a rubbing might provide.
Because of opposition to the original Festival Wing plan, the start date for renovations was delayed. The head of estates had left and I was put in touch with Clare Wood, the Southbank archivist, who was supportive of my ideas. In the autumn of 2015, after the site had closed to the public, I spent two weeks making work. I had good access to the site including the QEH plant room which was going to be stripped out.
Because the plans had changed, there were fewer surfaces that would be materially altered. The HG upper gallery floor was one of these; it has been refurbished. This shows the original concrete floor with metal stud.
The rubbings were made on cartridge paper, canvas and Tyvek using graphite sticks, brass rubbing sticks, and crayon. Each rubbing was documented with a unique document identification number, the date, and a brief description. I took a photograph of the site of the rubbing and recorded the compass point I was facing, and longitude and latitude. I recorded the size and type of materials used. Subsequently we took photographs/scans of all the rubbings and included this documentation in a master catalogue. Although I made every attempt to document my work with meticulous care, I did end up with one or two undocumented rubbings and some missing data.
I made a tabulation to analyse the types of surfaces I’d made rubbings of and from which part of the site.
|SITE: HAYWARD GALLERY
Total rubbings 55. Interior 21. Exterior 34
|Concrete||Formwork: staircases, ramp, parapets, walls, mushroom pillar.
Internal and external floor tiles.
Stalagmite on paving (calcium carbonate).
|Metal||Brass fittings on glass balustrade.
Stud in upper gallery floor.
Exposed metal rods on top of interior balustrade.
|SITE: QUEEN ELIZABETH HALL and PURCELL ROOM
Total rubbings 42. Plant room 21
|Concrete||Walls including concrete skim over original ply shuttering.
|Metal||Plant room machinery including stairs, heating vents, signage.
Foyer door frame and handles, window frame, heating panel and vents in foyer, signage.
Dedicatory wall plaque.
|Brick||Plant room internal walls.|
|Ceramic||White wall tiles.
Red quarry tiles.
|Plastic||Plant room signage.|
|Rubber||Flange around wooden door in brick wall surrounding plant machinery.|
|Fibrous material||Large bricks made from fibrous material forming interior wall.|
Table of rubbings, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Hayward Gallery: site, surface, content
I realised I did not have an accurate memory of what I had done and, though I had wanted, at the outset, to make a comprehensive set of rubbings – a sort of dictionary of place, that is not what happened. My project was solipsistic providing an emotional map of my feelings of longing for place. I wanted to capture what I saw, to hold onto it, not just on paper, but to make it a part of me. I am uncertain how to convey this longing for (union with) place: English has no word for it but Google offers me the Welsh, ‘hiraeth’ and the Portuguese ‘saudade’ .
I have been trying to remember where I saw a reference to the formwork being made from Douglas fir. In The National Trust Souvenir Guide,Brutal Utopias, published in 2015 to coincide with their Brutalist Utopias project that included the Southbank Centre, there is only a reference to ‘sawn board finish’ (p 11). But here, The art of concrete Building the South Bank Arts Centre  on page 26, is a reference to rip-sawn Baltic pine and another to Douglas fir. It is mentioned again on page 28. This document brought the making of the building to life for me. Part of a project done at the University of Westminster Constructing Post-War Britain: Building Workers’ Stories, 1950-1970, it is a series of interviews with men from Higgs & Hill who made the Festival Wing. They turned ‘Descriptions of Workmanship and Materials and Notes on Method of Measurement’ and two dimensional architectural drawings into construction drawings for formwork that was then built out of soft wood or ply and into which concrete was poured. When the formwork was removed, its mark remained.
My rubbings document my experience of site. This photograph sums up the project for me.
It’s a small teak access door, near the red stairs, at terrace level. I’ve placed my rubbing of the door over the wood. The rubbing both conceals the original wood surface and reveals details of the grain that are otherwise not visible to the eye. It brings together the hands of the workmen who made this door 50 years ago with mine. It is as close to the heart of this place as I can get.
Since 2015, I’ve been experimenting with ways to work with the material I gathered. Interest in Brutalism has been increasing and it seems easier to find information now than it was even a few years ago. The Southbank Centre has been developing their archive and is beginning to make it accessible to the public. Clare Wood, the Southbank archivist, was my primary contact and enabler from 2015 onward and I am grateful to her and others at the Centre who gave me access to the site.
London Metropolitan Archives, City of London GLC/AR/PL/21 from Greater London Council collection, p 1/2/25. The full title of the document is, ‘Descriptions of Workmanship and Materials, and Notes on Method of Measurement.’ Appendix B. March 1962. This was issued for The Royal Festival Hall but other documents issued at the same time make clear that these specifications would have held across both this site and the site of the AG (art gallery) and CH (concert hall).
London Metropolitan Archives, City of London LCC/CL/GP/02/134 from the London County Council Collection. Unnumbered pages including a letter from Gabriel White of the Arts Council to the London County Council dated 4.8.60 raising the possibility of providing the AG with natural light and two reports from the LCC, South Bank Development Scheme – Exhibition Gallery, General Purposes (Special Development and Arts Sub Committee), Report (9 Nov 1961) by the Architect, and Report (12 – 7 – 62) by the Architect addressing the development of pyramid lighting by Holophane Ltd. LCC/AR/CON/02/9024 shows the Higgs & Hill contract for the AG (Arts Gallery) and CH (Concert Hall). GLC/AR/PL/21/130 shows LCC architectural drawings. GLC/AR/PL/21/123 GL shows Ove Arup plans.