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Glenn Howells Architects, London, English National Ballet

A Robust Performance: English National Ballet in London

London has been expanding eastwards for the past 40 years or so. The first milestones in this development were the office towers at Canary Wharf, followed by London City Airport, which was inaugurated in 1987. In 1999, Richard Rogers‘ Millennium Dome was added; after this came the facilities for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

The new headquarters of the English National Ballet and its associated ballet school stands between the two latter projects on London City Island, a peninsula in the Lea River. On behalf of project developer Ballymore, Glenn Howells Architects have realized about 1,700 living units in the area, which once featured a wharf. The new cultural institution has been added as a keystone in the overall development. It owes its unpretentious appearance to a tight building budget; however, it reflects the tough industrial heritage of its close surroundings. Profiled glass elements measuring 3,600 m2 in total form the pellucid shell of the five-storey building. Interruptions in this shell are created by the ceiling-high window cut-outs of the rehearsal studios that take up most of the second and fourth upper levels.

The ground floor is home to the public areas of the building, which are also behind clear glass: the lobby, shops and, at the centre of the building, the large performance hall whose fly tower extends over the entire height of the structure. The first upper level accommodates offices for the ballet’s 200 employees, an exhibition space and, for the first time in the history of the ensemble, which was established in 1950, an in-house costume department. With an eye to the budget, the interior spaces have more of a workshop feel than any opulent lustre. The building-high entry hall, which features a sculptural stairway framed in black banisters, is the only thing that attracts attention here. The robust, durable material palette used for the façades continues indoors with the extensive use of exposed concrete, metal and wood; plasterboard cladding has been kept to a minimum.

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