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building study

Herzog & de Meuron's Laban Centre is already establishing itself as a special creative environment and catalyst for local regeneration In the short history of the Stirling Prize there have been several 'obvious' winners (including Grimshaw's Eden that, in the event, didn't make it). Herzog & de Meuron's Laban Centre in Deptford, south-east London, was another. On this occasion, of course, it duly carried off the prize. Laban has all the ingredients of very good - possibly great - architecture. For a start, it is a highly practical building which, after a year in use, seems to be loved and cherished by those who use it. Its extraordinary mix of toughness and delicacy is closely in tune with the art form - contemporary dance - that the centre teaches and promotes. Secondly, it is a building that enriches the neighbourhood in which it stands (one still in the throes of regeneration) and is a thing of real beauty and delight. Finally, Laban incorporates innovative ideas that genuinely advance the art of architecture and should certainly inform the booming field of educational building.

Extraordinary buildings generally have extraordinary clients and Marion North (who ran Laban in Britain for more than 30 years and was closely involved in the commissioning process for the new building) and Laban's current director, Anthony Bowne, clearly fall into that category. The ultimate inspiration, however, was that of Rudolf Laban (1879-1958), 'the father of modern dance', who came to Britain as a refugee from Hitler and initially established a studio in Manchester. Laban's school moved to Surrey in 1953 then, in the 1970s, to New Cross in south London where it colonised a rambling collection of old buildings, including a redundant church. As the school grew, these ad hoc premises became increasingly inadequate for more than 300 full-time students. A 1995 study by Burrell Foley Fischer concluded that the scope for expansion on the New Cross site was virtually non-existent.

With the Lottery up and running, Laban resolved to seek funds for a new building.

Lewisham council, which wanted Laban to stay in the area, provided the site at Creekside just within the bounds of the borough at a bargain price of £750,000. Creekside was then, and remains to some extent, a forlorn and polluted quarter of decaying industry in a notably poor and rundown corner of London. But a key attraction of the site was the availability of regeneration funding to supplement that from the Arts Lottery Fund.

The 1997 competition, with Zaha Hadid chairing the jury, was a starry affair with submissions from Zumthor, Miralles, Chipperfield, Fretton and Elam Scoggins Bray, as well as Herzog & de Meuron.

The latter was clearly the winner, says Anthony Bowne: 'They'd taken the trouble to understand how we operate. They spent days at New Cross and saw that there were elements in the old premises, for all its shortcomings, that we didn't want to entirely lose - its informality, the corridors and stairs where chance encounters took place, the mix of activities, the slightly anarchic air of the place.'There were also practical issues, which the winning practice seemed to have addressed. 'A building in a gritty inner-city area with a couple of hundred women students running round in leotards needs to be secure, ' says Bowne. 'There had to be one controlled entry point - the idea of a scattered campus of buildings was not on.' Nor was the relatively high-rise scheme proposed by one competitor deemed appropriate.

Herzog & de Meuron's £14.4 million building, occupied by Laban in autumn 2002 and formally inaugurated last February, contains just two main levels of accommodation, plus a mezzanine. Most of the 13 dance studios are located on the top floor - no two are identical in size and shape and none is a precise rectangle. Arranged around the perimeter of the building, all the studios benefit from natural light. From outside they are private domains, but there are views into all of them from internal circulation spaces.

Some students, used to entirely closed studios, apparently found this disconcerting at first. But as Anthony Bowne insists: 'They are training to be performing artists - soon they'll be on a stage with an audience.' The 300-seat dance theatre, a facility Laban previously lacked, forms the concealed heart of the building - the fly-tower does not read externally since it is concealed by the topfloor studios. This theatre, used both for teaching and public events, is entered from the ramped 'street' (an echo of that in Tate Modern's turbine hall) that leads from the reception area to the entrance to the mezzanine level library at its top. The wavy timber handrail along this street is a touch of wit on the part of a practice often noted for its deep seriousness. There are views from here down into the cafe and the exercise and treatment rooms (even the best dancers sometimes pull a muscle), located along the south side of the building at ground level.

Externally, Laban reads, by day at least, as an elusive presence, with areas of clear glass occasionally punctuating the over-cladding of translucent polycarbonate sheeting that forms a protective shield for the glazed inner facades. (The double facade acts, of course, as an environmental buffer and is part of the low-energy strategy for the building developed by Whitbybird in association with Waldhauser Haustechnik of Basel. ) The material is cheap and tough, with a subtle colour range that creates an effect that Herzog & de Meuron's Michael Casey describes as 'watery'. The aim was to avoid a stridently stripey look, says Casey. The proximity of the river also has some relevance to the chosen aesthetic. After dark, the building emerges as a coloured lightbox, a real beacon of renewal.

Inside, however, Laban is clearly a bigboned concrete structure, an interior landscape that focuses on three broad corridor spaces (or wedges) at top-floor level, accessed by remarkably chunky spiral staircases formed of in situ concrete and painted black. Each of the wedges is colour-coded using a range of vivid hues selected by artist Michael Craig-Martin, whose role in the project (says the architect) was that of a key member of the design team from day one.

Colour has always been an important element in Herzog & de Meuron's architecture and Craig-Martin, for his part, insists that his scheme is a response to the varying character of the spaces - which are much more than circulation routes. Laban students typically spend eight or nine hours a day in the building - classes start at 8.45am. And as Casey says, 'they need somewhere to relax and just hang out'. There are lockers for personal possessions, seats and views out - to the centre of Deptford, with its fine Baroque church of St Paul, to Greenwich and the river. (Some of these views may soon be blocked by the overscaled housing scheme by Broadway Malyan, which will surround Laban on two sides. This is regeneration at work, of course. But the proposed blocks seem to take no account of their distinguished neighbour. ) On one level, Laban can be read as a rather sophisticated shed. Unlike, say, Wilford's Lowry or Farrell's The Deep, which were equally intended as symbols of regeneration, it eschews self-conscious gestures and seems, indeed, at home in a landscape of low-value sheds. In form, it is an irregular rectangle with a curved swathe cut out along the western elevation. The depth of the plan made it necessary to create three internal courts, which, in addition to channelling daylight into the building, act as visual connectors. One was intended to contain a reflecting pool, yet to materialise. ('We had to do something for the Stirling jury visit, ' Anthony Bowne admits, 'so we laid Astroturf!') The intention was that moss would be allowed to cover the other courts, but a dry summer and autumn has left them bare and they remain oddly glum spaces.

Ideas of creating a roof garden on top of the building had to be abandoned in the context of a tight budget.

Another consequence of inadequate funding was that some facilities have had to be housed in a run of converted Victorian buildings separated from the centre by the recently completed landscaped garden designed by Gunther Vogt. The architect's collaboration with the latter is as significant as that with Craig-Martin - the jaggedly enveloping landscape of grassed mounds and ridges, an extension of that inside the building, shields the centre from the road and includes an amphitheatre for performances in fine weather. Removing soil from the site would have cost up to £300,000.

Instead, it was put to good use and, as Michael Casey says, 'it's no more polluted than most of the soil around here'.

After a year in Deptford, Laban is in buoyant mood. It has recently announced what is virtually a merger with Trinity College of Music, now down the road in part of the former Royal Hospital at Greenwich (AJ 10.10.02). The two institutions are already working closely together. Both aim to produce not just performers but rounded artists and, as Anthony Bowne says: 'Laban is a terrific environment in which to nurture artists.'

Applications for full-time courses are at a record level and part-time and communitybased courses and activities are booming.

You would be hard-pressed not to find Laban visually stunning but, as one cynical visitor reportedly asked, 'won't it all seem very dated before long?' In 50 years, Laban may have as much to say about the architecture of the millennium as the Royal Festival Hall (a 'dated' classic) says about that of the '50s. Its success lies not only in vivid colour and strong form but in a really committed response to the needs of users. This is an artistic village, a working landscape that is as varied and unpredictable as a slice of city, an immensely stimulating place just to visit, let alone to use regularly. It is also a tough, nononsense piece of educational plant that infuses an element of sensuous enjoyment into the business of training and learning.

Made of ordinary, unprecious materials, it transcends site and budget to make a creative environment of tangible potency.

Environment and engineering

The initial brief was for a low-energy environmental services solution that would also deliver the exacting thermal comfort conditions required by dance students.

The design solution for the dance studios features side-wall displacement heating and underfloor heating. This combination ensures suitability uniform temperatures and air velocity gradients within the occupied space while taking advantage of free cooling (there is considerable exposed thermal mass), air stratification and lower water temperatures, resulting in high-efficiency mechanical systems.

The environmental controls strategy is supported by the climate moderating aspects of the building fabric.As well as the concrete soffits, exposed to maximise thermal mass so helping reduce peak heating and cooling loads, the performance of the envelope was optimised to maximise daylighting to the dance studios while avoiding excessive solar gain.

The envelope comprises an outer skin of polycarbonate and inner skin of low-emission glazing; the space between the two is ventilated using louvres at the top and bottom to prevent temperature build-up.

Internal lighting is controlled by a programmable lighting management system with photocells, detectors and manual switches.

Whitbybird is monitoring the performance of the building using a package developed with the controls company E-Squared.The environmental performance of the building is 10 per cent better than the original target and we are confident of reducing this still further by fine-tuning of the controls strategy during the post-occupancy evaluation phase.

It is difficult to believe now that the original structural scheme involved a steel frame with precast concrete planks. But as the architectural and environmental schemes developed, in situ concrete became more than just a 'solution'- it is an integral part of the delight of the building.The capacity that concrete has to be moulded into any form is apparent throughout the building.Upon entering, the black-painted, bush-hammered concrete spiral staircase sets the scene for the rest of the building. Moving up the ramp with its curved upstand parapet, there is the inclined floor slab of the lightwell jutting into the space. The slender magenta coloured 'column' in the corner is, in fact, a rainwater pipe.

The concrete is on view throughout, often painted but frequently unfinished, thus exposing the standard concrete 'features' such as blowholes.The quality of the finish is a credit to the contractor's team and a model of what can be achieved with a standard, nonenhanced, specification.

The interesting use of concrete continues up to the roof where the slab is ribbed.The central portion is flat but higher than at the eaves, which produces a series of inclined ribs spanning onto four hip beams.Advantage is taken of the deep eaves beams to minimise the number of columns around the perimeter.

The structure is supported on piled foundations.The design of the substructure had to respond to piles, which changed positions on site to avoid soft spots in the underlying strata and ground anchors that restrain the Deptford Creek wall.

Andy Keelin and Des Mairs, Whitbybird


COMPETITON DATE 1997 PROJECT DESIGN 1998-1999 TENDER DATE July-December 2000 PROJECT REALISATION 2000-2003 CONTRACT Two-stage JCT98 private without quantities TOTAL COST £14.4 million GROSS INTERNAL FLOOR AREA 8,203m 2(7,800m 2net) CLIENT Laban Centre, London ARCHITECT Herzog & de Meuron: Jayne Barlow, Konstanze Beelitz, Christine Bisnwanger, Nandita Boger, Fun Budimann, Michael Casey, Peter Cookson, Irina Davidovici, Rita Maria Diniz, Hernan Fierro Castro, Alice Foxley, Harry Gugger, Jacques Herzog, Detlef Horisberger, Jean Paul Jaccaud, Nick Lyons, Stefan Marbach, Christoph Mauz, Pierre de Meuron, Christopher Pannett, Kristen Whittle COLLABORATION Michael Craig-Martin STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Whitbybird SERVICES ENGINEER Whitbybird, Waldhauser Haustechnik LANDSCAPE DESIGN Vogt Landschaftsarchitekten QUANTITY SURVEYOR Davis Langdon & Everest THEATRE CONSULTANT Carr & Angier ACOUSTIC ENGINEER Arup Acoustics IT ENGINEER Arup Communications PROJECT MANAGEMENT Arup Project Management MAIN CONTRACTOR Ballast Construction SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS Acoustic panelling Soundcheck; ballet barres Bailey Fabrications; carpet Tretford Carpets, Joseph Hamilton & Seaton; claddingWicona Bausysteme, Rodeca, Hirsch Metal; concrete frame O'Keefe; dancefloors British Harlequin; dry lining Knauf, Thermofelt Contracts; fixed seating Race Furniture; internal glass screens, doors, mirrors ISI Partitions;

internal metal doors MK Door Systems; ironmongery Geze, Dorma Door Controls, Glutz; joinery Jarvis Newman Northern; lifts Kone; lighting Artemide, Erco; entrance doors Geze; M&E Emcor Drake & Skull;

metalwork Fire Escapes & Fabrications; resin floor, wall finishes Flowcrete , Ryebrook Resins, Floortec ; roofing Trocal, Robertson Roofing; signage Sapphire Signs, Holmes Wood; theatre equipment Harkness Hall, Northern Light, Stagetec Sound & Lighting Projects; timber handrails Mallinson WEBLINKS Laban Centre, London www. laban. org Whitbybird www. whitbybird. com Waldhauser Haustechnik www. waldhauser. ch Vogt Landschaftsarchitekten www. vogt-la. ch Arup www. arup. com Ballast Construction www. ballast. co. uk Davis Langdon & Everest www. davislangdon. com

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