Glenn Howell's salary as an architect

Dance moves: Glenn Howells ’new home for English National Ballet

The term A Bauhaus for Dance ’, which appears on Glenn Howells Architects’ website to herald its recently completed English National Ballet (ENB) building, sounds a touch hubristic. But on approach, crossing the Mark Whitby-designed bridge that connects London City Island to Canning Town tube, the corner of ENB's pale, orthogonal form does provide a small echo of its Dessau predecessor, its name in big super-graphics on its pale façade .


The phrase was coined by the ENB’s artistic director Tamara Rojo, although in reference more to the content than the container. It signals her intention to commission and originate new, experimental work in the company's repertoire, showing the same innovative attitude to culture the Bauhaus did in the 1920s. It builds on the ballet company’s long history of innovation, ever since it was founded as the London Festival Ballet in 1950 (it was renamed in 1984), with a remit to take ballet out to new audiences by touring nationally.

It was Rojo, too, who helped initiate the company’s radical move to this site in east London’s old docklands. Its previous home in South Kensington, adjacent to the Albert Hall, while much more central, was cramped, with limited facilities and, importantly, no space for full performance rehearsals. This new 8,600m2 building has enabled not only a massive expansion of its facilities but also its co-location with the separately run English National Ballet School for the first time.

Enabling and funding the construction of a new cultural facility, let alone running its program, is necessarily a world away now from the old state-funded models. Seeing the building from the bridge underlines this as its corner is sandwiched between two 20-plus-storey residential towers. It sits in the center of a new primarily residential scheme developed jointly by EcoWorld International and Ballymore. This received planning in a deal with the local council, Tower Hamlets, which required it to provide D1 space for community or school use (of which the ENB forms the largest chunk).

The agreement also saw Ballymore pay for the construction of the bridge, which makes this a viable urban neighborhood by linking it to Canning Town station, which serves both the Docklands Light Railway and Jubilee Lines. Intelligently, rather than pepper-potting the D1 space, it was concentrated primarily on two larger sites: aimed at attracting institutions rather than just smaller arts organizations to the Island. As a result, the other major site is due to be the new home of the London Film School, designed by Nicholas Hare Architects, and currently under construction.

The building’s corner is sandwiched between two 20-plus-storey residential towers

London City Island is in fact a peninsular, a last tidal bend of the River Lea before it hits the Thames, once occupied by low-rise light industry and storage. Glenn Howells Architects also created the overall masterplan for the new development, succeeding a previous version by SOM. Glenn Howells project director Dan Mulligan, who led on the overall development, describes SOM’s version as a ‘monoblock of residential’. Certainly the D1 elements offer the opportunity to bring a richness to the area, though inevitably, to make it all stack up it's the market-sale residential that dominates, with towers and lower-rise slabs, crowding the perimeter of the island - described by the developer in a positive spin as a 'micro-Manhattan'.

While it's frankly a bit of an eyeful from afar, once the slightly bish-bash-bosh aesthetics have settled on the eye, the quality of build of the Dutch, Hurks modular system used, and indeed its slightly enlarged Dutch-scale proportions, at least suggest decent-sized, well-lit living spaces within. In addition, at ground level, the common parts are thoughtfully landscaped, with pockets of townhouses softening the base of the towers with threshold front gardens and a ‘green mustache’ of landscaping wrapping around the island’s edge.

And at the new neighborhood’s heart - the "pearl within an oyster" as Mulligan terms it - is the ENB building. Its façade is composed of a large white-framed grid of anodized steel, with occasional panels of clear glazing punctuating opaque U-channeled glass panels of Linit - almost becoming one of the materials-of-the-moment. Its visible sandwich of translucent glass-fiber insulation not only delivers a good thermal envelope but provides the interior with a sense of enclosure and a soft milky light while giving the façade a pearlescent quality.

Visually, these gridded panels suggest an orthogonally regular building. In fact it is anything but; its footprint wrapping irregularly around a multistorey carpark. But the simple grid is indicative of the large orthogonal spaces within: a kind of Rubik’s cube of dance studios, slotted and stacked within its footprint.

A sandwich of translucent glass-fiber insulation delivers not just a thermal envelope but a sense of enclosure and a soft milky light

Indeed, this is very much a building designed from the inside out. Its defining design driver was the need to include a main space production studio - essentially a space containing a stage with theater-like dimensions for full rehearsals. This is 20 x16m with a 26m-high fly tower, which essentially sets the height of the building.

Stacked around this at second and fourth-floor levels are seven 15m x 15m, 5m-high dance studios, with all other ancillary spaces fitted in between them - the 'costume atelier' for instance sits above the loading bay, designed to take two heavy goods vehicles, needed for touring sets and equipment. Other spaces include a large administration office - the 76 dancers are supported by around the same number of staff - with specialist facilities including a hydrotherapy pool and even a tutu room. Meanwhile, the English National Ballet School is on the fourth floor, along with four of the dance studios, use of which it shares.

The main entrance is paved off a public space, says Mulligan, ‘like an Italian piazza’. It leads into a generous lobby-atrium-cum-café space, familiar from so many public buildings. "Our turbine hall" is how Rojo has described it, although beyond this main circulation space, the building is security protected. Ahead of you is an expressed scissor-stair in oiled steel, designed to be animated by its users - a Bauhaus touch à la Oskar Schlemmer. It leads up to a generous first-floor landing space, which together with the soaring walls of the entrance and staircase, can be used for exhibitions.

The space can also be hired out, as indeed can the main performance studio when the ballet is out on tour - for everything from a Cameron Mackintosh production rehearsal to a Porsche advert. With the old state arts funding business model no longer available, this building is designed to help the ENB wash its own face. In the lobby, an impressive projection of names lists the foundations and individual donors that helped fund the building and support its program, which includes provision for community uses in the building.

The production space is essentially a black box with a fly tower at one end and retractable bleacher seating at the other. All the finishes, black painted concrete walls and plywood floors, are designed to be simple and robust ‘Not too fussy; kick around ’as Mulligan puts it. "It's essentially like a space undergoing constant refurb," he adds, referring to the regular testing and install and de-install of sets.

The double-stacked rows of 15m x 15m studios are designed as no-nonsense, clean, practical dance spaces. Each has a specialist sprung floor, warm blond oak timber acoustic panels, one mirrored wall and soft natural lighting coming from another formed of the Linit panels. These also contain one rectangle of clear glazing: ‘We did not want them to be sealed boxes ... we wanted the dancers to have views out,’ says Mulligan. With the budget tight, all the timber used in the project is sourced from surplus worktops, supplied at no cost by a company run by one of the dancers ’fathers.

The most expressed elements in the studios are their ceilings of exposed deep double tee beams which neatly accommodate the M&E runs. Mulligan explains that concrete had to be used for the floors and structure to mitigate any reverberation of the eight adjacent dance spaces. But it's all 50 per cent GGBS with a thermal mass that assists in keeping running costs low - the building is plugged into the local district heating system. While all ancillary spaces are naturally ventilated, the dances space use mechanical heating and ventilation to maintain relatively constant temperatures needed for the suppleness of dancers' muscles.

Elsewhere, a large green-room with both seating and catering facilities also contains a low timber studiolo -type structure, a tatami-mat lined room-within-a-room, where dancers can stretch out and relax.

Overall this building has a nice robust straightforwardness to it, with its intelligent hierarchy of spaces meaning it can function both as an urban public building on a square and a working building. It provides a strong new face to a cultural organization’s work, while giving useful urban definition to its difficult site; w combining its pragmatism with just a touch of poetry.

Architect’s view

After ENB chose to build its new HQ in London City Island, the main challenge was providing the extensive range of flexible, state-of-the-art facilities on a narrow site and with a challenging budget. We have created something that is pared-back and elegant, but also hard working, with its character defined by a celebration of exposed raw materials such as concrete ceilings and translucent glass walls. The limited material palette and the use of off-the-shelf, hardworking components helped ensure the building met its budget.

ENB is a lean and efficient building with natural ventilation in all non-performance spaces, north-facing glazing and an efficient thermal mass. Precast construction was employed, and the in-situ concrete is 50 per cent GGBS (made from fly ash rather than cement) which has reduced embodied carbon by half. The building also plugs into the London City Island district heating system, making it extremely carbon efficient.

In a time of reduced public funds for the arts, the building provides ENB with a financial springboard by enabling spaces to be rented out while the main company is on tour. The production studio can also be used as an auditorium for ENB’s outreach programs with local schools and other stakeholders.

The new HQ transforms the way in which the organization honors the original vision set out by founders Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin, whose aim was to take classical ballet of the highest quality to the widest possible audience. It is also a building that looks to redefine ENB - from a brilliant group of artists making it work in a Victorian mews building to a brilliant group of artists who are now able to push boundaries in a purpose-built machine for dance.

Glenn Howells, Glenn Howells Architects

Client’s view

We have been working in collaboration with Glenn Howells Architects (GHA) since 2014 on the relocation of our headquarters from South Kensington to our new purpose-built building in Canning Town.

We started with a very clear, but complex and ambitious brief, testing our first ideas by visiting a range of other dance buildings. GHA then developed the design organically, using 3D and digital models to refine it. It was very much a collaborative design process and it was not about making an impressive HQ, but a working home where we could create, rehearse and share alongside creative partners and other hirers of the facilities.

A big challenge for the design team was the sheer scale of the building, which had to be adaptable and provide a wide range of rehearsal, teaching and support spaces. GHA has created something that is very simple and elegant but also full of character by celebrating raw materials such as the concrete ceilings and translucent glass walls.

GHA worked alongside our staff teams at the beginning of the project, identifying and understanding the needs of the various users through discussion and observation. It has designed a building that works hard and well for all English National Ballet’s various specialist users.

Our resulting new home gives us the space and facilities we need to continue to develop and care for world-class artists and create innovative new work, which evolves ballet as an art form for future generations. The spaces also enable us to offer new jobs, host apprenticeships and wide opportunities for participation, skills development and training. The spaces have been designed to welcome the local community, with views into rehearsal studios, an exhibition space and a café.

The building has been designed to match the ambition and potential of the company. It answers the brief to provide a working space - it is not a venue but rather a building that allows us to practice, plan and hone artistic productions. English National Ballet School, which had been housed separately, will once again be under the same roof.

The result is an incredibly lean and efficient building which allows us to grow and thrive long into the future.

Patrick Harrison, executive director, English National Ballet

Engineer’s view

The English National Ballet (ENB) building posed some interesting challenges from a structural engineering perspective. The main challenge was to develop a floor that would provide a good dynamic response to the dancers using the studio spaces and to develop an economic structure that could be efficiently constructed off-site if possible.

As a touring ballet company ENB was able to advise which performance spaces were the best for dancers ’performance and which were less than satisfactory. We then carried out detailed structural analysis of the advised floor systems and were able to work out the correct structural natural frequency required for ballet dancing. This was then used to generate specifications for the building’s structural system.

The remainder of the London City Island development is constructed fully off-site and there was a desire by EcoWorld Ballymore to deliver some of the ENB building this way. To enable this, we selected double tee units and bridge beams which could provide the long spans and natural frequency requirements while using the offsite system build. Banagher Precast Concrete was selected to supply the precast components of the frame.

The extent of fair-faced concrete was determined in conjunction with the design team, client and specialist contractors. There was limited budget and it was important that the fair-faced concrete was used only in the appropriate locations. The specification was defined in reference to specific examples from the contractor’s previously completed buildings.

Martin McGrath, deputy group managing director, OCSC

Working detail

The building is arranged around seven 15m x 15m, double-height dance studios, providing large column-free spaces for the dancers to train and perform in.

The spans were achieved by using precast double tee beams (normally used in bridge engineering) which enabled the structure to cope with the natural frequency generated by 60 ballet dancers performing in unison.

Fifty precast double tee beams were installed across the scheme, weighing over 30 tons per section and meticulously placed on to the in-situ concrete frame. The beams are encased by a floating, isolated concrete floor. This is then topped with a specialist sprung timber floor to provide acoustic separation between the studios.

The heavy concrete frame is wrapped in a light skin of low-iron u-channel glass with the elevational treatment configured to respond to its immediate context.

The north façade is clad with insulated translucent glass, maximizing the amount of natural light that filters into the studios to create ethereal dance spaces.

The western façade is closer in proximity to the residential buildings and provides a greater level of privacy for both dancers and adjacent residents. This façade retains the translucent glass skin for a consistent external appearance and is enhanced with insulated composite panels which increase thermal performance and provide fire and acoustic protection.

The façade is then punctuated with large-span steel frame windows, which offer expansive views out and glimpses in for residents and visitors.

Robert King, associate,Glenn Howells Architects

Project data

Start on site June 2016
Completion September 2019
Large internal floor area 8.635 m²
Construction cost£ 27 million
Construction cost per m² £3,198
Architect Glenn Howells Architects
Client English National Ballet
Developer EcoWorld Ballymore
Structural engineers Hydrock (fit out), OCSC (shell & core)
M&E consultants Hydrock (fit out), TB&A (shell & core)
Quantity surveyors Pulse Associates (fit out), Lambert Smith Hampton (fit out), Gardiner & Theobald (shell & core)
Project managers Pulse Associates (fit out), Lambert Hampton Smith (fit out), Acumen (shell & core)
CDM co-ordinator CDM Services UK
Approved building inspector Butler & Young
Main contractors BW (fit out), Ballymore Construction Services (shell & core)
Acoustic engineers Aecom (fit out), IDIBRI (fit out), Hoare Lea (shell & core)
Landscape consultants Chris Blandford Associates (shell & core), Camlins (shell & core)
Interior designer the space studio
Lighting Hydrock (fit out), Buro Happold (shell & core)
Sustainability consultant Eight Associates (fit out)
Access consultant Access Included
CAD software used Autodesk Revit

Performance data

On-site energy generation None (although the London City Island energy center has a CHP which feeds into the district heating system)
Heating and hot water load 148.93kWh / m2/ yr
Total energy load 215.28kWh / m² / yr
Carbon emissions (all) 47.6kgCO² / m²
Annual mains water consumption 42.89 liters / person / day, or 10.85m³ / person / year
Airtightness at 50pa 3m³ / hr / m²
Overall thermal bridging heat transfer coefficient (Y value) 0.049W / m²k
Overall area-weighted u-value 0.49W / m²k
Embodied / whole-life carbon 2.199.293 kgCO²eq / m²
Predicted design life in years 60 years

Ballet schoolDocklandsEast LondonGlenn Howells Architects2020-04-09

TagsBallet schoolDocklandsEast LondonGlenn Howells Architects