Laban Centre

View down entry ramp towards the entrance. The projecting element at ceiling level is one of the two central courts.

The exterior areas are very pleasant but strangely cut off from an internal life, as if they have been reluctantly accepted into the general scheme and seek to disguise their other reality as a security zone.

The Laban is the kind of brief and project content most architects would die for: some 8000 sq.m. of facilities for the country's premier dance school. A tight budget, yes, but Herzog and de Meuron have injected the project with the kinds of decision-making that carefully allocate available funds. It's cheap 'n' cheerful, but with elegance and wit — a refreshing place to visit that provides a level of architectural gamesmanship that is rarely experienced in London (or anywhere).

Intended as the catalyst of regeneration in the area (the borough is one of the most deprived in the country), the new building sits astride Deptford Creek and reinvents a former refuse depot, populating it with a 'pavilion in a landscape'. It is, as the architects claim, respectful, sensitive, and engaged — although the area offered little enough to engage or respect. Strategically, the architects have attempted to create a dialogue with this weak context — principally in the form of a façade curve (distinct, but hardly generous) that orients this and the entrance toward Thomas Archer's St Paul's Church, Deptford (1713-30; a superb baroque work and the only building of merit within quite a distance). They then develop the concept of interior arrangements as an urbane village, with streets, courts, views (for example, to the church again) and the presence of nature — once again adopting weak contextural references (e.g. street lines), but using them strongly and consistently. A basic conceptual narrative is thus provided and the design is given 'coat-hangers'; it's all rather arbitrary, but it works.

Herzog also refers to the design as 'figuratively' oriented rather than 'systems' oriented — a building that is 'a vibrant, inspiring focal point for the community, accessible and welcoming all', one that implicitly negotiates an instrumental agenda. On the other hand, there were clearly budgetary and programmatic pressures that suggest the design as a dual personality, with one architectural narrative on the outside and another on the inside. Externally, the reality is that the Laban is actually a simple, compact, low-energy, low maintenance shed which comes close to communicating itself as a proverbial black-box fortress with constant CCTV surveillance, set well behind a tight perimeter security fence and defensive landscaping — all of which is disguised and glamourised by softly tinted polycarbonate cladding and the long curve to the principal façade. And, internally, one notices that the entrance arrangements have obviously been impacted by late-design instructions for coping with security. The power of a simple equation of Director's office / reception desk / cafe / and ramp up to the auditorium entrance is intruded upon by barriers and restricted access arrangements at odds with the fundamental design.

Perhaps one carps. But there are some curious design decisions that have been made. One of them appears to be to have a 'tight skin', without openings. This means that the black-tinted glazing of the cafe — located on a south-east corner, adjacent to the Creek, does not open up onto a nearby terrace — even though the camera-scanned no-go zone between entrance gate s Na

and entrance door is strongly landscaped and argued to be intended for recreation and performances. It's all somewhat at odds with the PR-speak.

From the outside, it is not until the light fades that the vibrant richness of the interior is revealed: a place of colourful streets and courts and internal transparency, with 13 dance studios, offices, a 300 seat auditorium (with public programmes), a dance health suite, long ramps and all kinds of internal delights tempered by the consultancy of artist Michael Craig-Martin. It is here that the architects have been able (despite the budget restrictions) to exercise ambition and real skill that 'dances' (one has to say) between the strictly programmatic and the poetic. In other words its a terrific building to be in and use.

The roof of the (apparently two-storey, but actually three-storey) concrete structure is pitched (and also the place of deliberately cultivated inhabitation by rare Redstart birds!), so that the upper interior studios all enjoy different configurations and personalities. These (as well as offices and other rooms that subtly background themselves) are accessed from wedge-shaped 'streets: carefully considered, front-to-back corridors dealt with as sensuous, lively spaces that feed one's ears as well as one's eyes, their geometries informed by alignment with the Creek and the main street, thus generating the wedge geometry.

It may be flawed, but the Laban is a rare kind of architectural gamesmanship that offers genuine satisfaction and commands admiration: an inner, as well as an outer, landscape rooted in the idea that the interior is as much an urbane village as the outside community is — the former described by Harry Gugger, the building's design partner at Herzog & de Meuron, as "an urban life within the envelope".

But one wonders about the fundamental strategy, even before the architects drew a line. The Goldsmith's campus, where the Laban was located (and which retains a building used by them), would have been hugely and more plausibly improved by a new building like this in its midst. Instead, we were given a Will Alsop's arts building providing kind of injection. If the Laban had stayed on that site, the Goldsmith's campus (a fascinating urban mix) would have been extremely strong; almost anything would have helped Deptford Creek.

The two black concrete spiral stairs penetrating the black flooring are expressionistically strong features.

The Laban's internal corridors are especially characterful and almost always provide some link to externalities. Even the cross-corridors relate to the two internal light-wells.

The Laban has an internal architecture that is at once simple and complex. Tightly bound within the confines of the external geometry which arbitrarily accords with geometric abstractions, the internal arrangements struggle for coherence and actually win through. What reads, on the outside, as two levels is revealed, on the interior, to be more complex than that.

The ground level introduces the user to what is, in essence, a simple circulation routing — which immediately splits into ramps leading up and down, and even up in order to then go down! Note the lecture theatre on the ground level.

The so-called mezzanine level has two principal parts: the lobby and access to the theatre auditorium as well as the school library; and

— at the opposite end of the building — an access corridor to offices and dance studios.

The latter are dotted around the place and all appear to be different. Most are to be found at on the upper level (below).

Two other (orienting) features should be noted: the two light-wells; and the two large spiral stairs.

Staff are given facilities that would make Scandinavians blush in horror, but this is England. Academic staff have windowless box rooms where tutorials can be given. But it all appears to work quite well — above all in the dance studios.

Each corridor is given a diverse geometry that widens out to an external view. That above the main entry door is on an axis to St. Paul's church

— the only, as well as a worthy — baroque work of architecture to the west.

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