Leading the dance
ECD Architects and The Westwood Partnership have succeeded in fitting the new home of the Royal Ballet School into the tight urban scale of London's Covent Garden
The Covent Garden area is no architectural set piece. Its distinctiveness lies in the layers of past and present uses: workshop next to dwelling, market next to theatre, adaptation and reuse. Behind many a door, it is not selfevident what you will find - small space, large, single room or gateway to a maze. It is in keeping with this accumulated layering that the Tardis that is the new Royal Ballet School (RBS) upper school has been inserted into Covent Garden. What you get is five large, bright dance studios stacked up, with many support spaces wrapped around them.
What you see is a basement and groundfloor shop let to Zara, one modest ground-floor entrance to the school and undemonstrative facades to the RBS's spaces above, both on Floral Street opposite the Royal Opera House and on Long Acre.
Hanover Place, little more than an alley at about 3-4m wide, also runs down the side of the building, connecting these streets.
This contrast in apparent inside/outside scales is partly about making a fitting architectural treatment on the streets. Partly, it is a product of the deep site (reminiscent of RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), another Tardis, refurbished by Avery Associates (AJ 3.5.01), set between Malet Street and Gower Street). Partly, too, it reflects the development package needed to make this project viable.
The project arose following the decision of the Royal Ballet to move in 1999 from Baron's Court to space in the upper floors of the Royal Opera House. The RBS was then in two locations - the lower school at White Lodge in Regent's Park, where it remains, while the upper school (A-level years) had been sharing the Baron's Court premises with the Royal Ballet, its students taking both inspiration and aspiration from the Royal Ballet's presence. The search was on to bring them close together again. Hardly a closer site could have been found, the two now reunited symbolically and functionally by Wilkinson Eyre's bridge over Floral Street, called the Bridge of Aspiration.
In conjunction with the Opera House, the RBS was able to buy a 150-year lease for the upper floors of a proposed development that was part of the old Royal Opera House site. The site was purchased by the National Farmers' Union Mutual (NFUM), with detailed planning consent in place for a ballet school to designs by Feilden & Mawson.
The NFUM was to create the shell and lease the space to the RBS, with the school responsible for the fit-out. The project was funded by the DfES and substantially by private supporters of the RBS.
The original planning consent was not appropriate for all the needs of the RBS or the NFUM, so new planning and listed building consents were applied for. However, some aspects of this original consent remained, notably the overall massing and related rights to light agreements, which added difficulty to packing the required spaces into the available volume, particularly the studios, which were too shallow in the original consent.
The NFUM procured the shell by Design & Build, using Salmon Developments as project manager, with ECD Architects appointed as executive architect to the NFUM. ECD has worked for Salmon for about 10 years. The Westwood Partnership, which has worked on various small projects for the RBS since 1955, was appointed to act as architect for the fit-out under a traditional JCT contract. This sounds as though ECD and Westwood worked in series; in practice, they worked much more in parallel. It is not possible to create a neutral shell for subsequent fitting out for an organisation like the RBS, which has such a particular set of spatial requirements.
The heart of the school is the teaching studios - one 21x15m, two 15x15m and two 15x13m (plus a 37m 2small group practice room). The largest studio (Linden), on the first floor, also has bleacher seating for 180 and the adjacent studio (de Valois) can then double as an audience gathering area. For this use, these two studios are 4.6m high rather then the 3.7m for studios higher up the building.
Also included in the spatial mix are the entrance foyer, changing areas, five classrooms, student common room, gym, physiotherapy and fitness rooms, and admin and teaching staff spaces.
Studios require structures deep enough for the long spans, which limit deflections and control potential harmonic resonance from dancing in unison (see 'Structure', above). Effectively, studios are doubleheight volumes; other spaces warp around them on single levels of varying height. The studios are in two stacks, one fronting on to Floral Street, and one stack in the heart of the building but with access to significant daylight to the west, where there is a lightwell and set-back in neighbouring buildings.
The result is a set of studios that have palpable daylighting and outdoor contact, though artificial light is used, too. They feel light, bright and contemporary - a huge contrast to the previous premises.
This shifting of floor levels and wrapping of spaces is given legibility particularly by the orientation device of the entrance foyer.While the RBS has only a narrow ground-floor entry on Floral Street (minimising the loss of lettable retail space), you have arrived when you climb to the first floor, with its two-storey foyer.
Here, there are views through into the adjacent studios; it is part of students' education to be permanently on show (as at the Laban Centre). There is space to stand and stare. A two-storey foyer window on to Hanover Place also helps with orientation (though the view is restricted by the Place's narrowness). And from here, the principal staircase - floating, opentread, inset from the side walls, skylit at the top - rises through the building.
The designers have used up pretty much their whole fire-spread Building Regulations ration of glazing in the foyer window. Other, symmetrically-placed, apparent openings on Hanover Place are, in fact, solid walls faced in back-lit obscured glass. There are a few small opening horizontal slit windows.
Behind this largely opaque wall are spaces that need windows least, such as changing rooms and visitor WCs. These are mechanically ventilated. All studios are air-conditioned from a stack of plant spaces at each level, simplifying air supply and return in horizontal ducts to studio ceilings. The plant, of course, has to meet stringent sound attenuation requirements.
Other acoustic considerations include sound leakage into and between studios and to/from the retail space below the school.
Materials are limited in range and sharply detailed. Studios have special cushioned vinyl on sprung floors and folded platemetal ceilings for air handling, lighting and some of the acoustic control.Walls have mirrors or timber linings (hiding student bag storage and AV equipment), or are plastered here, and elsewhere in the building, painted off-white. Ironmongery and balustrading are stainless steel. Carpet is used widely, in light burgundy, an RBS colour. Joinery is of oak, including framed glazed screens to the sides of studios and oak cladding to the lift shaft that rises alongside the principal staircase. This oak continues from its use as window framing externally, though that continuity is not very apparent, with the untreated external timber now a light sandybrown weathering to grey. Lighting is bright throughout, appropriate in studios, feeling a bit showbiz-glitzy or harsh in other parts (depending on your mood), as if you are always on stage.
If the main challenge of the interior has been the integration of varied spaces, always seeking legibility of organisation and contact with the exterior, the challenge of the outside has been in responding to the varied contexts. The site itself brings its own complications. To the east, on Floral Street, it includes the Surveyor's House of about 1800, refurbished by Westwood for RBS staff. (There is now a planning application to break through from the Surveyor's House into the main RBS building at each level adjacent to the lift. ) In the opposite corner of the site, the listed 51-52 Long Acre has been refurbished for letting by ECD. The basement and ground floor are taken for retail use by Zara. The upper floors are to be fitted out for residential use.
External treatment varies from elevation to elevation.On Floral Street, above the stone surrounds of the retail space, large boxframed windows set in brick reflect the scale of the studios within. Planners were keen for this facade to be broken up, as is much of this side of the street, though the Opera House opposite is one massive sweep of rendered wall. So at the entrance, the rhythm changes from brick to a bay of vertical limestone and glass, which drops in height to that of the adjacent Surveyor's House. The entrance is also marked by a 4m-high steel and glass banner, its etched motifs drawing on the Benesh Dance Notation. Artwork, by Julian Stocks, was part of the planning permission.
The rest of it is on Hanover Place, as small glass panels dividing the ground-floor glass boxes publicising the RBS.
The pattern of large opening plus pseudo-openings above gives pace to this long wall, though it feels a rather large-scale, sweeping gesture for so tight a space.
The stone ground-floor framing continues here and on to Long Acre as far as the listed Nos 51-51, which are white-painted brick.
The new build contains single-storey uses - offices, student common room, fitness-related rooms - and its windows, within the same brick as Floral Street, echo the pattern of sashes along the street. It is here that the set-back top floor is most evident, a metal and glass contrast to the adjacent older mansards.
In its compression, this building is in the tradition of the Covent Garden area, reinterpreted. In its explosion of bright open spaces within, it confounds expectations.
The client is impressed, too. And the students won't go home.
Jody Pearce, Waterman Partnership
The key to the success of this building was the ability to incorporate threedimensionally all the separate, specific areas into the available space in a way that made it user-friendly and natural. This required a structure that was subservient to the space-planning needs, not some regular structural grid, resulting in the use of different forms of steel construction and a variety of split slab levels.
The superstructure was formed using a steel-frame consisting of Slimdek floors in general administration areas, due to limited headroom, and long-span deep composite universal beams in the dance studios to give clear open areas and appropriate clearances. The beams incorporated web penetrations for service runs, to enable optimum control of the environmental conditions in each studio.
Design checks were made for the longspan beams, comparing footfall responses, to ensure that vibration and movement amplitudes were not detrimental to the use of the dance studios. The risk was harmonic resonance caused by the highly regulated impact of the ballet dancers to music.
Due to the site's proximity to the perimeter of 'Lundenwic' (Saxon London), a period of archaeological investigation was provided before construction began, leading to the retention of a dumpling of soil, central in the site, to preserve artefacts in-situ. Piles could not readily be put through this zone.
The westbound tunnel of the Piccadilly underground line runs very close to the northern boundary of the building and technical approvals were gained from London Underground Limited for new mini piles. These minimised the foundations' potential impact, and also addressed the constraints on site access and working conditions.
Shell and core costs
The analysis is based on the tender sum for the gross internal area
SUBSTRUCTURE FOUNDATIONS/SLABS £196.47/m2 Excavation of basement to retail, substation and plant areas. Installation of mini- and large-diameter piling.
Underpinning existing structure. Formation of new reinforced concrete basement slab and retaining walls
SUPERSTRUCTURE FRAME £139.54/m2 Structural steelwork from basement to underside of roof
UPPER FLOORS £27.62/m2 Reinforced concrete and metal decking to upper floors
ROOF, ROOFLIGHTS £58.00/m2 Sloping zinc coverings on a steelwork sub-frame, single-layer membrane flat roofs on a concrete base; incorporating a number of glazed rooflights
STAIRCASES £29.51/m2 Galvanised steel staircases with screed-filled treads and precast stairs
EXTERNAL WALLS £185.28/m2 External envelope consisting of limestone and ceramic tile elements to the ground floor, with a mixture of brick and acrylic render-faced walls to the upper levels
WINDOWS £2.31/m2 Windows and curtain walling to all facades: windows generally composite fixed-glazed steel and timber units; curtain walling generally Schuco anodised double-glazed aluminium systems
EXTERNAL DOORS £0.21/m2 Automatic glass sliding doors to main entrance
INTERNAL WALLS AND PARTITIONS £15.91/m2 Generally blockwork; however, some walls precast concrete sandwich panels within in situ concrete infill
INTERNAL DOORS £1.45/m2 Steel doors for four hours (self-closing) and one-hour (self closing); enamelled finish
SHELL AND CORE TENDER DATE 1 February 2001
START ON SITE 17 February 2001
CONTRACT DURATION 56 weeks
GROSS EXTERNAL FLOOR AREA 4907m2
CONTRACT JCT with Contractor's Design
TOTAL COST £5,720,433
CLIENT NFU Mutual
PROJECT MANAGER Salmon Developments
ARCHITECT ECD Architects
QUANTITY SURVEYOR Gardiner & Theobald
STRUCTURALENGINEER Waterman Partnership
PARTY WALL SURVEYOR, PLANNING SUPERVISOR PSK Prout Tilbrook
ACOUSTIC CONSULTANT Hann Tucker Associates
MAIN CONTRACTOR Dove Brothers
SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS BrickworkWilliamson Cliff, Swift Brickwork; blockwork Celcon, Swift Brickwork; acrylic render Sto, Renocon; zinc roofing, cladding Rheinzink, Carlton; masonry support Ancon; aluminium curtain walling and windows, oak windows Schuco, Formes Alutek; illuminated panels Sign Systems, Formes Alutek; limestone cladding Marble Arch; flat roofing Permaquik, Coverite; louvres Kingfisher Louvre Systems; cleaning access systems Tractel; structural steel Bone Steel; secondary steel Fussey Engineering; piling Fondedile; tanking Volclay; steel staircases Southdown Construction;
precast stairs, floors Creagh
TENDER DATE Fourth quarter 2001
START ON SITE June 2002
CONTRACT DURATION 26 weeks
GROSS INTERNAL AREA 3,385m2
CONTRACT JCT Private with Quantities; adapted by JCT Contractor's Designed Portion Supplement TOTAL COST £2,804,090
CLIENT The Royal Ballet School
ARCHITECT The Westwood Partnership
QUANTITY SURVEYOR EC Harris
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Waterman Partnership
SERVICES ENGINEER GDM Partnership
ACOUSTIC CONSULTANT Hann Tucker Associates
PLANNING SUPERVISOR PSK Prout Tilbrook
AV CONSULTANT Theatrep Planning and Technology
MAIN CONTRACTOR Benson
SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS Lift Kone; M&E installation Avon; specialist joinery Key Joinery; retractable seating Auditoria Services; dry lining, ceilings British Gypsum, Specialist Ceiling Services; metal ceilings SAS International; performance equipment AJS Theatre Lighting; architectural steelwork NcNealy Brown; ironmongery Allgood; carpet Desso/Essco; dance floor Dansflor (Tarkett); display cases Interior Configurations; aluminium entrance screen Specialist Cladding Services; signage HB Sign Co; lockers Helmsman; curtains, blinds Ravenswood; shower pods Taplane; classroom, office furniture Trac; tutu stands Alpha
TOTAL PROJECT COST £800,000
CLIENT The Royal Ballet School
ARCHITECT Wilkinson Eyre Architects
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Flint & Neill Partnership
ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEER Buro Happold
LIGHTING CONSULTANT Spiers & Major Associates
QUANTITY SURVEYOR EC Harris
MAIN CONTRACTOR Benson
BRIDGE SUBCONTRACTOR GIG Fassadenbau
Benson www. benson. co. uk Buro Happold www. burohappold. com Dove brothers www. laingorourke. co. uk ECD Architects www. ecdarchitects. co. uk EC Harris www. echarris. com Flint & Neill Partnership www. flintneill. co. uk Gardiner & Theobald www. gardiner. com GDM Partnership www. gdmpartnership. com GIG Fassadenbau www. gig. at Hann Tucker Associates www. hanntucker. co. uk NFU Mutual www. nfumutual. co. uk PSK Prout Tilbrook www. prout-tilbrook. co. uk Salmon Developments www. salmondevelopments. com Speirs & Major Associates www. lightarch. com Theatre Planning and Technology www. theatreplan. net The Royal Ballet School www. royal-ballet-school. org. uk Waterman Partnership www. waterman-group. co. uk Wilkinson Eyre Architects www. wilkinsoneyre. com