Sep '04 - Nov '06
work in progress, it's about 2/3 of the final lenght. this is waht was sent to Mr. Maclaren.
apologies for repetitions, aliterations, spelling mistakes and the likes. me is a foreigner.
“BOUNCE!”, The Laban centre by Herzog and De Meuron Architects.
An essay by Richard Ceccanti
The Laban Centre, the new home of the Laban School of Classical Dance is arguably one of the most famous buildings London has seen in recent years.
The commissioning of the building was followed by the usual media bonanza that is always associated with the designs of practices of the level of H&DM.
Praised by both the architectural and the general press, it captivated the attention of a nation diverting the fans of Design from their home improvement TV shows for a good few weeks.
All this hype culminated in the Stirling Prize, awarded to the building in 2003.
It was quite surprising then, when the final users of such masterpiece started complaining about it. People evidently never appreciate what they are given.
I was quite intrigued by the story of this building. How can a building which fails to please its user be a successful one, a prize winning one, a masterpiece? Where does the architectural judgement find its balance?
I decided to look deeper into the question, to know the building better in order to understand how it deals with its program both internally and externally.
The Laban is located in the east of London, south of the river, in the borough of Lewisham. I have never been to Lewisham before, I rarely venture south of the river.
Just by looking at the A to Z map it appears clear what kind of area H&DM where dealing with. Large blob of uniform grey colour indicate large warehouse wastelands. But whereas, in their previous London adventure, the two were dealing with the clean, ready to be developed area around the Tate Modern.
Here the problems were different, the redevelopment was going to affect real people with real problems and not developers and big money.
The Laban needed to awaken a latent urbanity, to stand for transformation in an area of ongoing urban decay. On a purely aesthetic level, the building does an initial regeneration job by showing, by contrast, the beauty of the post-industrial landscape. This was the explanation given by the Architects when faced by criticism of their action.
It was clearly an intention that the physical presence of the new would invigorate the local communities and hopefully bring outside interest and much needed investment to the area, but is there more?
The building sits in the middle of a brown field site, and doesn't seem to have any direct contact with the urban fabric surrounding it. It does set a precedent for future developments along the river, but does very little in the way of creating public spaces, dramatically lacking in the area. Maybe the Architects decided to shy away from confrontation with the area, and decided that all they could do (without compromising the “quality” of the end product) was to drop a few sparks of beauty and hope for the best. The Laban glows and changes colour, but its surrounded by grey boxes, grey on the A to Z map as they mostly are in reality.
Inside, the building is organised by two large, parallel "avenues." One belonging
to the main entrance, with a public character and multileveled on a double height space, and a private one, giving access to the dance studios and service spaces, that repeats itself three times as its is stacked on all the levels of the building.
There is also a wide corridor on the third storey over the main space, which serves some large dance studios and a performance hall. Two minor "roads" running side by side to parallel courtyards interconnect the main avenues. These courtyards are situated in the deepest areas of the plan, in-between the two main axes.
Internally the building works much like a town, large spaces connected by even larger circulation areas punctuated by gathering spaces and events. The most famous of these events seems to be the large spiral staircase, looking much like a huge black drill bit. These where heavily criticised, for their colour but also for the tendency of their material (granulated concrete) to scratch the Lycra clad limbs of the dancers running up and down.
Another distinguishing feature of the building, and possibly the most famous, is the same transparent skin that wraps around it, enclosing this collection of spatial typologies. Unlike other H&DM buildings, this one has no clear indication of its structure. Inside, even in the largest spaces, tall columns are hidden from sight behind suspended ceilings. The polycarbonate skin does a fantastic job of hiding all the structural elements running along the edge of the plan. It also takes any “urban” connotation out of the building. There is no material connection to its context, no formal arrangement that might mirror or even aknowledge its surroundings or the typologies of building in the area. The subtext seems to say “fuck context”.
Which, in an area of such deprivation could be just the right thing to do, if you're the greatest Architect in the world. Denying the situation, proposing an alternative, might just be the only way out. But if that was the intention of the Architects, there is a very high risk of having some sort of social engineering on the agenda.
Think about the consequences of the Laban as the first gesture of the redevelopment of the area:
Ok, now we have a nice building on site.
It changes colour.
We need more.
We want more.
Who is going to build them? Developers, big money. Social housing, cooperatives, councils, they just have no money to spend on the eye candy. Developers are in it for the profit, which is possibly worst that the Architects, who are in it for the Art.
So we end up with a Lewisham Renaissance, best case scenario. Loads of riverside developments. Housing, offices, commercial space. The all shine, they all gleam. But who can afford them? Not the locals, not the people who need them. And obviously, their newly landscaped public spaces will be fenced off, the whole thing would, foreseeably, turn its back on what is already there, just like it happened anywhere else that has been developed along the river in the last 50 years. 100 meters of development off the river shore (as far as you can get river views from, I guess) and then its no-man's land.
The idea that the Laban could be seen as a development because it sets a new standard for the area doesn't stand on its legs. It sets a standard of extreme beauty that does nothing concrete for its surroundings. Not for what it does to public space, not for its program. Nothing. People can't even access it unless they book a visit. If this is the standard set by H&DM, everybody will follow.
The dancers are a problem for the building
Did you talk to lots of dancers before you embarked on the project?
So how long did you spend observing what the dancers were doing there?
JH: Years and days and weeks. [Laughs] No I think we went twice or three times for a few hours.
The students are not happy.
JH: They would be, their old building was very nice, it will take them a while to get used to the new one.
From the Daily Telegraph Readers' Questions, “Vampire Architects answer questions”.
I went down there for a few hours too, I figured, if it took them so little in order to design a building it would take me even less.
I managed to sneak into the forum for a few hours after the tour, and tried not to look too out of place (I'm 6'5” for roughly 14 stones, hardly your average ballet dancer). I explained the students what I was there for, and they were more than happy to help. I interviewed a group of 5 while I was there, and they all had to say some interesting stuff about the building.
So, what's wrong with the place?
Student 1: To start with, the floor in the dance studios, It's way too rigid, too stiff.
What do you mean?
Student 1: well, imagine you are jumping up and down on the floor and you are barefoot. After a while the impact goes from your heels to your knees and hips, and they start to get sore. That's why you wear trainers with rubber soles. We don't wear shoes. The floor has to he job for us. This floor doesn't.
Student 2: yes, compared to the old building, the floors have a lot less bounce to it. It's not a problem the students and the teachers noticed straight away, because it took a while to realise why people where having problems with their joints.
Student 3: it all became a real problem when people started rehearsing the same pieces here at the centre and then on a real stage. Long sequences of jumps, specially for porteurs (male dancers) turned out to be completely different in the two settings.
So, what did the school do about it?
Student 3: initially they told us they where looking for a solution, maybe overlaying another floor on to of the existing one, but as the months passed we haven't heard anything else about it.
Student 4: a few tutors started renting a space nearby to have the final year rehearsing their end of year show, but the rest of us are left here
Historically ballet dancing has always been practiced on suspended timber floors. From the timber floored buildings where dancers would train, to the stages where it would be displayed. The timber floor would absorb part of the impact of the dancer's landing, and also bounce back, allowing the dancers to “catch the rebound” and jump again.
H&DM decided to go for a RC building. The floor slabs are very thick, in order to span the large distances needed to create the open plan spaces on the ground floor.
They could not dig inside the slab in order to accommodate the suspended floor in the section, because that would have required the addition of vertical support under the thinner part of the slab.
I couldn't access the training rooms, only the students can, but they told me some of the rooms have concrete floors, others timber ones, but all directly in contact with the slab, which allows for no flexibility.
This problem had been recognized by the school, which after an initial consideration of possible solutions (rumour has it that the Architects where not involved), decided against all of them and sort of shut the protestors up.
So, to sum it all up, a great Architect that does almost nothing in the way of consultation, a client who is not rich, famous or powerful enough to have the problem fixed, and a bunch of pissed off, sore-jointed students.
It seems too obvious to mention even in such a low quality essay that if a place which has been designed to dance in cannot be danced it, the design is unsuccessful.
Is there any other problem with building?
Student 5: some people have been complaining about the colours in the practice rooms
Student 5: some people find them disorienting. I guess that specially at the initial stages of the study (for a dance routine) spinning in an environment which is not of a uniform colour can be sickening.
Student 3: I had that problem, I was in room 3 and I realized that when I was spinning I was being faced by the white light of the room's lamps and then by the light blue of the faÃ§ade. The effect is similar to having strobe lights pointed in your face, if you can imagine...
Student 2: it hasn't affected everyone but for some is a problem
Could your quantify? Say, what percentage has this problem?
Student 2: I would say around 2 or 3 out of ten.
Most classical ballets where originally written to be played against a black background, with very little in the way of stage props. This would have a dual function: concentrating the audience's attention on the dancers, but also helping the dancers in their moves. They would have black in front of them (the audience), black on their sides and black again behind them.
When a dancer spins he or she keeps her eyes open, in order to control the spin. The uniform background reduces the strain this motion has on the performer's balancing system.
How can I believe that behind the Laban's almost “out of place” beauty there is a real regenerating intent when the Architects didn't even bother researching a little into what constitutes a good space for dancing in?
The impression that it was just an exercise in style, the occasion to move a step forward in the same “post industrial with colour” direction they took with the Tate Modern is seems justified.
Design has become an adjective. A designer object is nowadays something that goes beyond the normal aesthetical qualities of the other “non-designer” object performing the same duty. This superficial connotation of the word has helped people forgetting the fundamental value of design, which is one of engineering, research, improvement and specificity to the task at hand. The Laban is a designer building, and a gorgeous one at that. But it fails with regard to the main part of its brief.
Nobody outside the ballet world had heard of the Laban Centre before, and now they know about it. This is Bilbao effect on a budget, but that alone is going to have little effect on the area. As I said before, it sets a standard for architectural alienation of the surroundings.
TO BE CONTINUED
thanks to all of you who will take the time to read it!