The QEH has over 900 seats and the Purcell Room in the same building has 360 seats. These two auditoriums were built together by Higgs and Hill and opened in March 1967. They were designed as additions to the Southbank Centre arts complex, with The Hayward (opened in October 1968), by Hubert Bennett, head of the architects department of the Greater London Council, with Jack Whittle, F.G West and Geoffrey Horsefall.
The sculpture Zemran in stainless steel (by William Pye, 1972) stands on the riverside terrace of the QEH.
The QEH is an example of brutalist architecture. The design was intended to show to a high degree the separate masses and elements of the building, in order to avoid competing with the scale and presence of the Royal Festival Hall. The QEH uses minimal decoration and was designed to allow circulation at multiple levels around the building. The focus is primarily on the internal spaces, which have very limited fenestration except for the (deeply inset) sweep along the river frontage of the foyer building.
The original arrangements provided circulation above and below the foyer (no longer allowed for security reasons, although the roof terrace has been opened for the Summer of Fun festival in 2011), right around the sides and rear of the two auditoriums and also a bridge link to The Hayward. The powerful forms and austere materials are an example of Brutalist architecture, and the design also highlights the plasticity of concrete.
The foyer is at first floor level and the foyer building is supported on octagonal reinforced concrete columns, with an undercroft below, and is vee-shaped. The two arms of the vee-shape are linked to the QEH auditorium by cast concrete tubes, reminiscent of a spaceship's docking arrangement. The provision of only two entrances to the auditorium causes congestion and slow exit for audiences. This is also a consequence of the decision to place all the foyer facilities on a single level, even though there is a significant descent to the auditorium entrance level, and steps are required up to the Purcell Room level. The foyer is an irregular shape to accommodate the change in angle between the lines of Waterloo Bridge and the north-east side of the Royal Festival Hall.
A notable feature of the QEH is the interior of the foyer building, with its intimate scale and subtle use of materials, and the terrace overlooking Queen's Walk. The original 1960s cool of this area has now been largely lost due to the intrusion of artificial partitions to provide smaller areas for various activities by day as well as in the evening. The concept of a grand foyer for socializing, pre-concert and interval drinks, which has been criticized as awkward and wasteful of space, has been largely abandoned, though the bar area and glazed central area have been retained. Access to all parts of the building, including from the foyer to the auditorium, remains a problem due to insufficient investment.
The main entrance to the foyer is from walkway level near the north end of the terrace of the Royal Festival Hall. To see the intended effect this should be viewed head-on from the north corner of the Royal Festival Hall. One needs to envision the pure effect without the clutter of illuminated poster boxes,the purple name board over the entrance, stained roof and wall panels, paint on the external staircase and light fittings on the external wall. The entrance, in Brutalist style, is in the form of a horizontal slit in a concrete structure, with six pairs of cast aluminium doors.
A smaller entrance is provided at ground level, intended to be for visitors set down by car (circulation of traffic under the Waterloo Bridge approach was possible before the Museum of the Moving Image building was constructed in the 1980s) or coming from the car park under The Hayward. This entrance also appears to have led to the undercroft but that access is now blocked off. An internal stairs leads to the foyer level from this lower entrance, past the original box office area. Lavatories take up the south-east wall of the foyer building and are housed in a structure extending out towards the centre access road.
The building's main problems are its drab external appearance by day, the deadening effect of the overhead walkways on ground level circulation, large amounts of slack space on the walkways and the provision of only an external staircase to the roof terrace. It works better by night, especially when approached from the eastern one of Golden Jubilee Footbridges beside Hungerford Bridge.
After being closed for many years the roof terrace and bridge to The Hayward have recently been reopened, with the creation of a new external gallery and a roof garden and cafe in partnership with the Eden Project in Cornwall. This reopens one of the most interesting pedestrian circulation possibilities of the original design. The roof terrace is reached by the external concrete staircase at the west corner on Queen's Walk near Festival Pier, which also leads to the lower level and the route to Festival Square. A crude disabled ramp, constructed of breeze blocks and bricks, has been added to the walkway between the QEH entrance and The Hayward.
The QEH auditorium is a separate building from the foyer. The auditorium building is aligned with the rear of its stage parallel to Waterloo Bridge and the seating area cantilevered out towards the foyer, supported by a massive column containing the emergency escape staircases at the rear.
The north west facade by Waterloo Bridge, although stained by pollution and rain water, is a good example of the massive concrete forms popular in 1960s Brutalist architecture in Britain. A slightly raised area, resembling a low stage is provided facing Waterloo Bridge. This may have been intended for outdoor performances.
A great concrete "prow", encasing the air conditioning ducting, protrudes towards the Thames along the side of the auditorium at roof level. The walkway area below this feature is on the roof of a utility building. Ventilation services are provided from a plant room on the roof of the Purcell Room via a massive concrete duct between the buildings leading into the QEH roof, and a concrete tower leading to the concrete duct on the north-east edge of the foyer building roof.
The acoustical properties of the Queen Elizabeth Hall are judged to be generally excellent. The acoustical properties of the Hall when examined in 1968 by music critics and engineers following a period of testing, trials and adjustment, were found to be of “general excellence” in the three key areas of a) Reverberation Time, which in this Hall are mainly adjusted by opening and closing cavities in the vertical wood panels on both sides, b) Tone and Definition, by allowing diffusion with minimum use of deflectors over the seating area rather than the platform and finally c) 'Singing' Tone produced here as in all excellent halls by a substantial height of the auditorium which in the Queen Elizabeth's case, although the rear stalls are steeply raked, extends 25 feet above the highest seats to the ceiling. (Trends in Concert-Hall Acoustics and the Elizabeth Hall C. L. S. Gilford The Musical Times Vol. 109 No 1499 Jan. 1968)
There have inevitably been much alteration and adaptation of the Hall, particularly in recent years, involving increasing the size of the platform and rigging extra specialized lighting arrays which allow the staging of dance and comedy productions. This has adversely impacted on the Hall's acoustics, in particular in the area of tone and definition by increasing deflection in the platform area.
The undercroft of the foyer building has been popular with skateboarders since the early 1970s and it is widely acknowledged to be London's most distinctive and popular skateboarding area. Opened in 1967 as a pedestrian walkway, it was first used by skateboarders in 1973 as the architectural features were found to be perfect for skateboard tricks. Unlike skateparks which are designed specifically with skateboarding and BMX in mind, the undercroft is not a skatepark but a found space, and still considered by the users as a street spot. The area is now used by skateboarders, BMXers, graffiti artists, taggers, photographers, and performance artists, among others. A photographic archive of the graffiti can be found at The Graffiti Archaeology Project. Although this informal activity, social and arts scene is a distinctive feature of the Southbank Centre site, it was proposed that the area would be redeveloped. However a statement from the Prime Minister's office (reported in Time Out, in August 2008) cited the importance of the undercroft for these uses.
The Southbank Centre, as part of its £120 million proposed Festival Wing development, sought to insert café and shop units in the Undercroft space partly to fund new performance spaces in the new buildings to be built above parts of the Queen Elizabeth Hall and to move the skate space to a new location under Hungerford Bridge about 120 metres away. This was opposed by the Long Live Southbank Campaign which gained the support of Mayor Boris Johnson in early 2014, leading to the suspension of the Festival Wing proposals. See Southbank Centre entry for further details.
Since 2012 the temporary structure A Room for London has been located on top of the building. The structure, designed by architect David Kohn is described as "a one-bedroom installation" and is shaped to appear like a boat perched on top of a building.
In 2005–06, the South Bank Centre and Arts Council considered reconstruction or replacement of the QEH and Purcell Room by two new auditoriums, each of approximately 1,100 seats, one for classical music and one for amplified music and contemporary dance performances. This would have posed significant architectural challenges, given the constrained site and the close proximity of the Royal Festival Hall. In 2013, proposals were made from Feilden Clegg Bradley for the Festival Wing of the Southbank Centre.
The whole 1960s complex including Queen Elizabeth, Purcell Room and Hayward Gallery, is currently undergoing complete internal refurbishment under the banner "Let the Light In". Although none of these buildings are listed or protected (the Southbank Centre has consistently opposed petitions to the government for listing so that it can maintain as much flexibility and freedom as possible to develop and transform the architecture in the future) the level and standard of restoration and renewal being carried out is commensurate with the building's significance and standing.
Included are structural repairs such as the renewal of the 60 odd steel and glass pyramids which grace the roof of the Hayward. The work does not cover any major cleaning or work to the exteriors.
The Arts Council have granted £10 million with the remainder being raised by sponsorship, such as seat naming, and private donations. It is planned to re-sent the facilities in early 2019. In the meantime during closure of the QEH, the Southbank Centre is scheduling some concerts at St John's Smith Square in Westminster.