Glenn Howells Architects Designs a New Facility for the English National Ballet

Located in East London, the new building is a pearl in City Island, a site ensnared by old and new infrastructure.

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Courtesy Hufton + Crow

When British ballerina Alicia Markova and dancer Anton Dolin founded the English National Ballet (ENB) in 1950, they aimed to bring ballet to those who didn’t have the opportunity to experience it. An international touring company, the ENB based itself in Markova House, a 19th-century, former hostel building in West London, rubbing shoulders with the already established Royal Ballet also located there.

Now, however, the ENB has decided to up sticks, ditching its first home for a new, purpose-built facility in East London designed by British firm Glenn Howells Architects. It’s part of the wider Leamouth Peninsula development in Canning Town, an odd part of the capital which hasn’t known meaningful development until recently—previously considered too far east for the hipster crowd of Hackney and Shoreditch, and not east enough to take part in the sweeping changes in Stratford.

The development on the Peninsula is known as City Island, a marketing-friendly name that makes its link to London explicit. Despite this, however, the site is physically estranged from the rest of the capital, being strangled by the infrastructural veins of the River Lea; the Docklands Light Railway; Jubilee Tube Line; and East India Dock Road highway. In light of this, one wonders: Is this a suitable new home for the internationally renowned ENB?

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Courtesy Hufton + Crow

Amazingly, the answer is yes. A new drawbridge by Glenn Howells and engineers WhitbyWood across the Lea establishes a vital link between City Island and the Canning Town tube and DLR stations. Its vermilion hue recalls the red paint used on local ships, such as the one that’s permanently docked at Trinity Buoy Wharf nearby. This bold approach to color (the architects say they were inspired by the Italian artist Giorgio Morandi) runs throughout the whole scheme.

From the bridge, the 93,000-square-foot ENB and its supergraphic signage emerges as a pearl from a sea of blue, red, and yellow blocks (most of which are housing), seemingly having tiptoed into the heart of the site. The only building in the vicinity to eschew brick cladding, the ENB is delicately wrapped by translucent white skin that casts the silhouettes of dancers inside onto the facade, which in turn acts as a giant Japanese paper screen.

“The ENB is about bringing ballet to the rest of the country; how do we design a building that represents that?” Daniel Mulligan, an architect at Glenn Howells, tells Metropolis. “It brings the ballet out to the public.”

Inside, the ground floor foyer contains a café and indicates toward the building’s main means of circulation: a steel, ribbon-like staircase that stretches out into the foyer.

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Courtesy Hufton + Crow

The building also clearly communicates its structure: Concrete, rather than steel, was used due to the latter’s natural frequency being incompatible with the physical impact of ballet dance. Above the foyer, there is office space for 100 staff and room for seven 50-by-50-foot studios, along with treatment rooms and a green room for its company of 70 dancers. The new building also accommodates the ENB School, allowing the school and the ballet company to be in the same building for the first time. The most notable feature, however, is a production studio that boasts an 82-foot-high fly tower, designed to emulate those of the best performance venues across the world, like the Royal Albert Hall in Kensington. The studio transcends the building’s full height and, echoing the facade, is dotted with apertures so dancers and visitors can witness rehearsals as they take place.

Along with a new in-house costume workshop, the full-size studio allows the ENB to financially sustain itself amid an era of government cuts to arts funding. Now free from the shackles of a facility in West London it had outgrown, and able to rent out its new facilities in the East, the ENB ’s future on City Island looks bright.

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