Figure 1. Front View of the Laban Centre from the front lawn performance space.
It is difficult to discuss the Laban Centre for Contemporary Dance without some notice of its neighborhood context. Located on the eastern edge of Deptford in the borough of Lewisham, south of the Thames opposite Canary Wharf, and off the edge of most London maps, every article published in the London Times surrounding the Centre’s opening in 2003 made some reference to the area’s “inner city decay (Binney),” the “dark, deserted and creepy” streets surrounding the site, and the “landscape of bleak neglect (Craine)” that serves as a background to this beautiful building. Architectural discussions of the Centre in the years following its opening however speak of a change in the overall atmosphere, with the Laban Centre serving as “the catalyst of regeneration in the area” (Powers). As a piece of modern architecture, the Laban Centre has succeeded in creating a space that is new, exciting, and altogether quite striking in an otherwise downtrodden area, while not forcefully asserting itself as a symbol of the future of artistic architecture.
The history of Deptford is a long and varied one. A fishing village that grew up along the Thames, the areaâ€™s growth was spurred when Henry VIII headquartered his naval forces at a shipyard there in 1513. Over time, London grew toward Deptford and Deptford grew into a busy town with a peak population of 113,000 in 1921, by that time a center of heavy industry. By 1968 the population had fallen to 68,000, and many of the once proud buildings had been torn down (Pevsner). By 1983, Nikolaus Pevsner wrote of the area in his Buildings of London series as â€œa sadly decayed and indifferently renewed area, only a shadow of its once proud pastâ€?â€”adjectives not so different from those used to describe the neighborhood in the 2003 London Times articles surrounding the opening of the Laban Centre.
The site in general is naturally isolated from its surroundingsâ€”bordered on one side by the Deptford Creek, and on another by Ferranti Park. Consequently, the Centre is located in a relatively green area in the midst of an otherwise very industrial zone. On the other side of the park and beyond a number of short, brick housing project rises Thomas Archerâ€™s 1730 baroque church, St. Paulâ€™s. Described by Richard Morrison in the London Times as â€œLondonâ€™s forgotten Baroque jewelâ€? (Morrison), the churchâ€™s dramatic steeple rises above what are now brick housing projects and on the backside of the church on Deptford High Street, simple two to four story retail/residential combination structures.
Figure 2. Right: View of St. Paul’s from the Laban Centre front entrance. Left: St. Paul’s Deptford.
The Laban Centre itself was completed in 2003, the winning entry by the Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron in a 1997 design competition (Laban). By that time, Herzog & de Meuron had already gained renown for their work in the conversion of the Bankside Power Station into the Tate Modern, leading to their winning of the 2001 Pritzker Prize. Of particular note from this design in relation to their later work at the Laban Centre is the Swiss Light, an illuminated neon piece at the top of the chimney, and a clear result of a collaboration with artist Michael Craig-Martin (Tate) who rejoins Herzog & de Meuron to create exterior color pattern for the Laban Centre (Tate).
The specifications for the Laban project stipulated the building of a dance conservatory on a 2 acre plot bordering Deptford Creek to include a wide range of functional spaces (including several theatres, dance studios, a library, cafÃ©, and conference rooms) in a light and creative environment for a relatively small budget of Â£22 million. The result was the three story, nearly 8000 square meter structure that is a truly energetic and exciting environ for a dance studio (Allinson).
Figure 3. View of Laban Centre outerbuilding from Creekside Road.
Coming toward the Laban Centre from Creekside Road at the North end, your first glimpse of the facility is a plain brick faÃ§ade on an L-shaped, simple building that bounds the northwest corner of the lot (Figure 3)– a structure very much in line with the Centreâ€™s surroundings or relatively run down old factory and apartment buildings. However, once you pass this corner building, the landscaping opens up to the astonishing multi-hued, glimmering main building (Figure 4).
Figure 4. Front face of the Laban Centre from the main gate.
The face of the building is made up of translucent polycarbonate with vertical stripes of pink, green and blue as designed by the aforementioned Michael Craig-Martin, set with numerous large mirrored windows. Horizontal and vertical structural supports can be seen through the plastic exterior, and in some places, other interior elements like bookshelves and dividers can be picked out through the translucence. During the day, the windows are completely reflective, with upper story windows mirroring the sky, and first story windows shining back the bizarre shapes carved out in the landscaping. The front lawn is sculpted using all straight lines to come to various unexpected peaks and valleys, with the focal point being one large hill inset with steps (Figure 5) that are available for seating during outdoor performances which take place periodically on the flat area directly in front of the building.
Figure 5. Landscaping near front entrance.
At times when walking around the grounds, the building seems to almost disappear, blending in with the blue sky near the top and reflecting back the green of the surrounding landscape toward the bottomâ€”an effect difficult to capture on film, but somewhat seen in the image below (Figure 6).
Figure 6. South side of the Laban Centre, looking east.
Another interesting visual aspect of the exterior is that the shining plastic walls donâ€™t hang all the way to the ground, instead stopping maybe six inches off the ground which gives the impression that the building is almost floating on its site. One must bend down to the ground to see that underneath the polycarbonate is a set back concrete base thatâ€™s coloring blends into the gravel distributed under the overhang, strengthening the illusion of suspension.
The south side of the Centre, to the right of the main faÃ§ade, borders the Deptford Creek and has a not-so-pleasant view of various abandoned and graffitied industrial buildings and boats along with numerous building projects (Figure 7)â€”a sign of the growing redevelopment sparked in part by the moving of Englandâ€™s top dance conservatory to this otherwise struggling community. The Laban Centreâ€™s place in a potentially rough neighborhood is dealt with in sometimes subtle ways, like in the vertical pipes on this side that also act as a bit of a security fence, to the more menacing brick wall on the back side of the building. A walk around the entire building shows indeed a very contained and secure environment with limited access points helped by both the landscaping and the brick corner building a visitor comes to on first approach.
Figure 7. View from south side of the Laban Centre, looking south.
When seen at night, the Laban Centre is visually quite different. In the dark with the interior lights on, the once mirrored windows become entirely transparent and show the network of dance studios that surround the core of the building. Where there are not windows, the light still comes through the translucent walls, shining out pink, green and blue (Figure 8).
Figure 8. Merlin Hendy, hughpearman.com. Laban at Twilight. [Online Image] 29 July 2007. http://www.hughpearman.com/articles4/laban.html
There can be no doubt that the Laban Centre makes a striking impression in its Deptford locale, but a discussion of whether such a dramatic image works in this particular neighborhood context is a more difficult question. The current location of the Laban Centre in Deptford is actually the conservatoryâ€™s second home in London, originally located in a â€œrabbit-warren of buildingsâ€? in New Cross, a similarly difficult area of the city (Pearman). In both cases, the Centre, a national headquarters for contemporary dance, was placed in a not particularly artistic area of Londonâ€”rich context for the Centreâ€™s international body of students and faculty. And yet while Herzog and de Meuronâ€™s winning design in the Centreâ€™s 1997 design competition did indeed introduce a style of building wildly different from the siteâ€™s previous content as a landfill, the design was one that was intended to subtly reference its context. For one, Hezog & de Meuron deliberately placed the building so that St. Paulâ€™s is situated directly opposite the Centreâ€™s main entrance, almost as the focus point to the Centreâ€™s parabola.
However while there is a nice view of the church steeple from the Centreâ€™s front entrance, there are not really points from which the Centre itself can be viewed as a whole. From the main thoroughfare, Creek Road, only a small part of the top of the structure can be seen from the most obvious viewing point on the bridge across Deptford Creekâ€”and because the coloring of the building often matches the sky, unless one was specifically looking for the structure, it would be quite easy to walk past without ever noticing it. To approach the front entrance of the Centre when coming from Central London, one must turn off of Creek Road onto Gonson Street, a quiet, mostly residential road which also offers no real view of the Centre until reaching the main entrance. At least in its unobtrusiveness then, the Laban Centre is an excellent neighborâ€”its modern and unusual form probably wouldnâ€™t factor into even a very close residentâ€™s daily experience. At the same time however, if the Laban Centre was intended to add a new dimension to the Deptford landscape, the buildingâ€™s lack of visibility and lack of attempt to change the area skyline, while pleasant, donâ€™t place the building as one easily able to be the centre of an urban revitalization movement.
Figure 9. McMillan Student Village, 2004.
Even considering this, between the Centreâ€™s undergraduate and graduate programs, youth courses, pilates lessons, and a very busy public performance schedule, a significant number of people have been brought into an area long unaccustomed to such traffic, and further development has significantly picked up. Of particular notice near the Centre is the new McMillan Student Village (Figure 9), a series of large dormitories to house both Laban Centre students and nearby Greenwich University students was complete in 2004 just across Creek Road from the Centre. This complex uses a lively combination of orange and white exterior walls set at varying and unexpected angles, and is an addition that, much like the Laban Centre, seems to brighten up the area. Other residential and commercial products can be seen all up and down Creek Roadâ€”a shocking change for an area that had remained in such stasis for so long.
In all, the Laban Centre seems to be a success, both as a useful and exciting interior space for the students, and in its understated and appropriate fit into Deptford. Johnathan Glancey wrote in The Guardian in 2003 that the Laban Centre â€œalthough low and unpretentious, is unmissableâ€? (Glancey), and these words describe well the seeming contradiction of the Labanâ€™s ability to really change the feel of an area without overtly pressing its ideas in the faces of its neighbors. And, when the building is actually approached, the inviting green of the front lawn and the gently flowing faÃ§ade with none of the harshness so often associated with modern buildings create an art piece that is utterly accessible. While such a bright and unusual design may be more difficult to swallow in a reincarnation as a bank or some other private-use building, as the home of Britain’s premier modern dance institute, Herzog and de Meuron’s Laban Centre is a great expression of the creative forces going on inside– a clear articulation of space and purpose in the most desirable of ways.
Allinson, Ken. Londonâ€™s Contemporary Architecture. Oxford: Elsevier Ltd, 2006.
Binney, Marcus. â€œDance centreâ€™s new rainbow rooms cast artistic light on an inner-city site.â€? London Times. 6 February 2003. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/court_and_social/the_hitch/article865762.ece. 28 July 2007.
Craine, Debra. â€œGetting a jump start.â€? London Times. 7 February 2003. http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/article866706.ece. 28 July 2007.
Glancy, Jonathon. “Give us a swirl.” The Guardian. 27 January 2003. http://arts.guardian.co.uk/features/story/0,11710,882901,00.html. 14 August 2007.
Laban Centre Website. http://www.laban.org. 28 July 2007.
Morrison, Richard. â€œDocklands Sinfonietta/Bond.â€? London Times. 19 October 2004. http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/article495902.ece. 14 August 2007.
Pearman, Hugh. â€œThe Plastic Lantern: Herzog and de Meuronâ€™s Laban Centre in London.â€? Gabion: Retained Writing on Architecture. http://www.hughpearman.com/articles4/laban.html. 14 August 2007.
Powell, Kenneth. New Architecture in Britain. London: Merrell Publishers Ltd, 2003.
Power, Alan. Britain. London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 2007.
Pevsner, Nikolaus. The Buildings of England: London 2 South. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1983.
Tate Modern Website. http://www.tate.org.uk/modern. 14 August 2007.