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A sense of Place

In its renovation of this London dance centre, Allies and Morrison has produced an inspired and practical venue, while retaining the building's informal, domestic character The Place, the internationally renowned modern dance centre which has just finished the second phase of a £7.5 million makeover by Allies and Morrison, is tucked away in a backstreet close to the mainline London termini of Euston, St Pancras and King's Cross. You get a glimpse of the new studio block across the forecourt of a filling station on the noisy, squalid Euston Road. The crude bulk of a Travel Inn hotel marks the entrance to Duke's Road. A few yards beyond, however, you are in one of those surprising and delightful enclaves which humanise even the most dismal tracts of the capital. The Regency elegance of St Pancras Church and Woburn Walk, Lutyens' fine rear elevation to the BMA headquarters, and the attractive 1900s municipal housing in Flaxman Terrace are elements in an intriguing urban mix.

The Place arrived here in 1969, taking over the former drill-hall on Duke's Road, built in 1888-89 to designs by R W Edis, as an atmospheric, if spartan, performancespace. Edis (1839-1927) ran a successful practice specialising in hotels and country houses - he extended Sandringham - and was honorary colonel of the Artists' Volunteers Corps. The company (members included the painters Leighton and Millais) used the Queen Anne-style drill-hall for physical training and rifle practice.

Founded by philanthropist Robin Howard, the Contemporary Ballet Trust launched the new venue with Bob Cohan, a protege of the legendary Martha Graham, as artistic director - the current director is Richard Alston. During the past 30 years, The Place has become a focus, not only for performances of contemporary dance, but also for training professionals and encouraging people of all ages and abilities to take up dance - every Saturday the building is packed with children. The new partnership with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art to form the Conservatoire of Dance and Drama, with substantially increased government funding, reflects the scale of The Place's achievements.

When Allies and Morrison was approached in 1995 to examine the potential for major improvements to The Place, it quickly became clear that the inadequacies of the buildings were an obstacle to the future development of its work. Studios and other spaces had been created in converted buildings to the rear of the drill hall, on Flaxman Terrace. Inevitably, the facilities here were makeshift and, though the ad hoc ethos of The Place was part of its charm in the early years, there was little to be said for a fire-escape route which ran across the stage of the theatre. Disabled access was rudimentary; teachers and students worked in shabby and cramped conditions; a modest 1980s extension by Burrell Foley Fischer had merely postponed the inevitable comprehensive revamp, for which the National Lottery was the obvious source of finance.

With Lottery funding secured - 70 per cent of the total cost, with a further infusion of money from the King's Cross Partnership - work began on site late in 1999. Phase 1, including six new studios, with support facilities, and a new entrance for students and staff on Flaxman Terrace, opened late last year. The second phase, including the refurbishment of the 300-seat theatre and other public areas, has just been completed.

As Eddie Taylor of Allies and Morrison - who led the project team under partner-incharge Bob Allies - makes clear, the aim from the start was to retain the special character of the institution. The new interiors were to be essentially functional and tough, with no obvious frills. Existing buildings along the north side of the site were demolished and a new studio block, with pairs of studios, was slotted in on three levels. (There is structural provision for another pair on the second floor, when funding becomes available. ) The studios are, perhaps even more than the theatre, the real heart of The Place. Their proportions and fit-out were the outcome of close consultation with the client. By using areas of glass brick on the glazed north elevation, the architect provided the requisite steady natural light along with an element of privacy. The floors of the studio block are of contoured precast concrete, covered with sprung beech boards but left largely exposed on the underside, their thermal mass forming an element in the services strategy.

Opening windows allow cross-ventilation, with mechanical ventilation, via a central service chimney, as a back-up device. A wooden rail - itself a serious design issue - extends along three sides of the studio spaces, with full-height mirror-glazing on the fourth. The two lower-ground-floor studios can be used as one space, with a retractable partition pulled back.

These spaces are intensively used by groups of up to 30 students. On the first and second floors, 'stretching zones' - dancers never relax - are provided in balconies which look down into the new day-lit foyer space.

The glazed triple-height street elevation allows passers-by to glimpse the dancers exercising and is seen as a symbol of The Place's openness to the local community.

Flanking the studio block is a new block of changing rooms and staff accommodation. The new staircase - with its elegant and practical steel-mesh cladding - and lift, serve all levels, the latter providing 100 per cent disabled access; disabled people are among those who attend dance classes here.

Some nifty stitching was needed to link the new structures with the retained and refurbished studio and administration block along Flaxman Terrace.

Bob Allies admits that the Grade II listing of the Edis drill-hall, shortly before the project started on site, brought about some changes to the designs. His own instinct was to radically open up the Victorian facade by extending the ground-floor windows and inserting plain glazing - this was now ruled out. It would surely have been a mistake. The essence of Edis's building is its informal, domestic character. The 'opening up' which Allies sought has been achieved, in fact, by the creation of a new paved area on Duke's Road, which allows audiences to spill out on to the street, and even offers the scope for outdoor performances.

The domestic look of the building extends into the ground floor box-office which, with its retained Victorian chimney piece, has something of the look of an elegant drawing room. Disabled visitors used to be hauled up the stairs to the theatre on a chair-lift attached to the stairs - now there is a lift in a lobby to one side. A new bar, fitted out by the architects, is provided at firstfloor level. A restaurant is located in the basement, together with kitchens, lavatories, a lecture room and ancillary spaces. There are connections at this level and at stage level to the dressing rooms, and to the studio and administrative spaces behind. Throughout the public spaces, the conversion is modest, practical and respectful of the original.

The theatre itself, with the original drill hall rooflights blacked out, was considered to be a highly satisfactory space which needed to be overhauled but not significantly changed - it is comfortable without being plush. Seating on bleachers provides maximum flexibility.

The removal of the old fire-escape route allows the 15m width of the stage to be fully utilised for the first time.

Bob Allies likens the approach to the drill hall refurbishment to that of Rick Mather at the AA - contextual but with bold touches. Inevitably, the most striking elements of the project are seen in the non-public studio wing where clarity of diagram has been reinforced by consistency of detail, to produce an inspirational environment for teaching, learning and self-expression. The bifurcated nature of the site means that The Place reads, more than ever, as two institutions entered from two streets. It is the holistic nature of what goes in inside the buildings, and the vision that makes audiences, as well as dancers, participants in an ongoing experiment that will weld them into an operational entity.

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