English National Ballet’s new complex on London City Island is making its debut this September, with the ballet company and English National Ballet School moving into their new home and its doors opening to the public for Open House London and the local Unity Arts Festival.
With its poise and precision, the new building has much in common with the dancers now practising their plies inside. The realisation of this exceptional project has relied on a series of creative collaborations, involving Ballymore, the English National Ballet (ENB) and its artistic director Tamara Rojo and Glenn Howells Architects.
The project grew from early dialogue between developer and ballet company. “The idea was pitched to English National Ballet before our design team began putting our concepts to work,” explains Glenn Howells, founder and director of Glenn Howells Architects. In evolving its design thinking the architect explored best practice with a fact-finding mission to top dance facilities in the USA. “Our proposals had to satisfy an amalgamation of two bar-raising briefs: the Ballymore brief of a new island community with culture at its heart, and the ENB brief which was both spatially and technically demanding,” adds Howells.
"Proposals had to satisfy an amalgamation of two bar-raising briefs: the Ballymore brief of a new island community with culture at its heart, and the ENB brief which was both spatially and technically demanding”
For London City Island, the architect has designed a series of residential buildings with colourful glazed brick exteriors, but its solution for the ballet complex couldn’t be more different. The ENB’s building, which nestles in the heart of the residential community, is clad in Linit u-channel glass, giving a milky white translucent skin that allows glimpses of movement inside and transforms the building into a beacon when illuminated by night. Clear glazing around the base of the building and large windows reveal the day-to-day workings of the ballet company. “The windows in the dance studios are also impressive, using the largest pieces of glass I have ever seen,” says Howells. “There were only a few manufacturers in the world who could make them, and they had to be delivered from Spain.”
On the inside the building has 93,000 sq ft of world class space, dedicated to the development of the company’s ballet and artists. Facilities include a production studio with flytower, where ENB can rehearse productions with full set and lighting, seven rehearsal studios, a costume workshop with dye room and shoe room, two learning and engagement spaces, hydrotherapy pool, gym and pilates studio, a green room and changing rooms, and café and exhibition space. The school has its own space on the fourth and fifth floors, which includes three rehearsal studios, lecture theatre, its gym and green room. Internal windows look from the school into the company’s rehearsal studios, giving students views of classes, rehearsal and the creation of new work.
"On the inside the building has 93,000 sq ft of world class space, dedicated to the development of the company’s ballet and artists."
ENB’s artistic director, Tamara Rojo, has worked closely with the project’s design team to shape the space. “I suppose this level of engagement with design comes with the territory of someone so creative. Tamara is one of the smartest, most energetic people I have met,” says Howells.
This special project has, Howells says, been hugely rewarding, “It’s certainly been challenging but also an absolute joy of a project to work on.” The general public will be able to see the end result for themselves when the building opens for a series of events as part of the Open House London architectural event and Unity Arts Festival. Unity Arts Festival is returning to Leamouth Peninsula after a successful launch in 2018, and will once again be hosting a programme of dance, art and music across London City Island, Trinity Buoy Wharf and Goodluck Hope.
Both events are taking place over the weekend of 21 and 22 September 2019, when visitors will have the opportunity to tour the new facilities, take part in a family dance workshop, hear assistant artistic coordinator Jennie Harrington talk about how the company works, watch an open rehearsal or even take part in classes. Most of these events are now sold out, but the venue has a full calendar of classes ahead and there are plenty more activities at Unity Arts Festival, including film screenings from soon-to-be tenants London Film School, animation workshops with resident Tim Allen and storyboard workshops in collaboration with Royal Drawing School. Check out the full programme here.