The hall was built as part of the Festival of Britain by Holland, Hannen & Cubitts for London County Council, and was officially opened on 3 May 1951. When the Greater London Council (LCC's successor) was abolished in 1986, the Hall was taken over by the Arts Council. It is now run by Southbank Centre. Since the late 1980s the hall has operated an 'open foyers' policy, opening up the substantial foyer spaces to the public throughout the day, even if there are no performances. This has proved very popular and the foyers are now one of the best used public spaces in London.
Each year Southbank Centre puts on a festival known as 'Meltdown'. This year the festival is curated by Massive Attack and features events across the Royal Festival Hall and Queen Elizabeth Hall.
The hall's design is unashamedly Modernist, the Festival's commissioning architect (Hugh Casson) having taken the decision to appoint only young architects. It was designed by Leslie Martin, Peter Moro and Robert Matthew from the LCC's Architects' Department; Martin was just 39 when he was appointed to lead the design team in late 1948. Martin designed the structure as an 'egg in a box', a term he used to describe the separation of the curved auditorium space from the surrounding building and the noise and vibration of the adjacent railway viaduct. Sir Thomas Beecham used similar imagery, calling the building a 'giant chicken coop'.
The building was substantially altered in 1964 by adding the foyers and terraces to the river side of the building and more dressing rooms to the rear. Alterations to the facades facing the river removed the playful Scandinavian Modernism of the building's primary public face in favour of a plainer and hard-edged style. The building's original entrance sequence was much compromised by these changes and the later additions of raised concrete walkways around the building to serve the neighbouring Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and The Hayward, built in 1967/8 and also part of Southbank Centre.
The building underwent a substantial renovation between 2005 and 2007 led by Allies and Morrison Architects aimed at improving the poor acoustics (which Simon Rattle said made performers 'lose the will to live'), production access and flexibility of the auditorium and the general quality of fabric, entrance spaces and cafe and the layouts of the foyers. The interior of the concert hall space was almost entirely intact until this re-modelling, which saw its stage canopy and walls rebuilt in plainer more rectangular forms. This was carried out in the face of opposition from conservationists, led by the Twentieth Century Society.
A row of seven shop/catering units has been added on the river side of the hall (with offices upstairs) and the section of the riverside walk next to these was improved. This has released space inside the original building which had been used for shops. The hall officially reopened to the public in June 2007 with a concert by the heavy metal band Motörhead, opening Jarvis Cocker's Meltdown. The refurbishment is expected to cost in the region of £91 million. A film has been made documenting the refurbishment, entitled This Is Tomorrow; it is directed by Paul Kelly and produced by Andrew Hinton. The soundtrack was composed by the band Saint Etienne who performed it at the film's première in the Festival Hall.
A large head and shoulders bust of Nelson Mandela (by Ian Walters, 1985) stands on the walkway between the hall and Hungerford Bridge approach viaduct. Originally made in glass-fibre it was repeatedly vandalised until re-cast in bronze. Skateboarders, who have long congregated in the undercroft of the neighbouring Queen Elizabeth Hall (considered to be London's most iconic skateboarding area) and now constitute a notable feature of the Southbank Centre, may soon be moved on if this area of the centre is redeveloped.