Massey Hall was once the epicenter of British culture

Written by By Paola Divon, CNN

I am standing in the old building where 20,000 people wanted to celebrate the birth of the human species by airlifting themselves into an ancient submarine, only to realize that the crossing had never taken place, and I find myself gazing out into the sea of trees, breaking branches curling into a sunburst of trill.

It is one of the most enchanting sights I have ever seen in London, a sprawl of delicate hazelnut trees with leaves that are in fact aquafaunal in the fullest sense. It’s also a symbol of another challenge the design of Massey Hall, its site in the Blackfriars district, faces. This is a regeneration project that is about more than balancing the remnants of a dying culture.

Massey Hall, the venue that entertained champions of the human species for nearly 150 years, was a symbol of a contemporary British revival of human passions. After a 300-year absence from the city, it was a kind of cultural resurrection in the early 19th century; a Neo-classical building in the full sense of the word, with its relentless angles and massive columns. It was intended to be much more than the hall of choice for James I’s coronation procession: the luscious Royal Sonesta Hotel of the century (The Royal Albert Hall now towers on the corner) proved more than willing to show the metropolis what its exhausted soul could do.

New stand-alone art gallery in space once known as Palace of Westminster’s House of Lords. Credit: Graeme Robertson/Guardian

But this cultural revival was always linked, in the artistic imagination, to a superlative achievement. With the help of loyal audiences, who came to view a string of performances, shows and exhibitions, and an equally loyal audience of secretaries of state who worked for politicians from the very outset, most of whom were willing to pay the fees. To watch as gallery and theatre directors created new art forms and transform the ages and fortunes of everybody from a minor English art critic to the Prince of Wales, would have been thrilling. The royal audience who saw whatever show was in hand certainly included the great, and this was surely all to the good.

But how different the artistic landscape is today. When the hall finally burnt down in 1794, with all the nervous excitement of a house-warming party, it will stand like a piece of architectural aspic, its remains consumed by garden. The Royal Albert Hall was built almost in a state of terror, given over to the earliest achievements of the Victorian arts and their modern successors: London needs a classical gathering place like this, but it desperately needs a cultural center that nurtures a culture that faces the future and is changed by it.

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