The Laban building, located on a two-acre site beside Deptford Creek in southeast London, is an exciting new structure dedicated to contemporary dance. It takes its name from the late Rudolf Laban, a Hungarian movement theorist who invented a ground-breaking dance notation program. The building, with views of the Thames and local landmarks, was designed by the 2001 Pritzker Prize-winning architects Herzog & de Meuron, who already made quite a splash in London with their dramatic design of the Tate Modern galleries in an old power plant on the South Bank.
Clad in a revolutionary pastel-colored polycarbonate shell punctuated by large clear windows, the 780 sq. m building shimmers in semitransparent shades of lime, turquoise, and magenta. Artist Michael Craig-Martin, who worked with Herzog & de Meuron on the design, also designed the polycarbonate box that illuminates the top of Tate Modern's chimney.
Inside the building, the daily activities of training, rehearsals, research, and workshops are semi-visible through the exterior walls. By night, Laban acts as a beacon, radiating light out into the surrounding area and along Deptford Creek, making it a friendly neighbor and welcoming audiences who come to see a performance. The interior is structured as an urban streetscape, with a series of corridors and courtyards centered around a 300-seat main theatre.
“We started with a blank sheet of paper in designing a good space for contemporary modern dance,” says Stephen Munn, head of the theatre program at Laban. “There is a sense of airy transparency around the theatre, which is not a black box but a warm, focused area.” The room has dark wood walls, a black floor, and warm brown upholstery.
“The theatre is a good space for dance. It has a large stage for the dancers, yet an intimate contact with the audience,” Munn adds. The stage measures 18m (60') wide and 14m (46') deep with a 13m (43') height to the grid. Theatre consultant for the project was UK-based Carr and Angier, who provided the following perspective about the theatre.
THEATRE CONSULTANT'S VIEW
The new Laban building is a remarkable concept from Herzog & de Meuron. It makes innovative use of plastics to create both color and light in the interiors. The majority of the accommodation comprises 13 dance studios, and in the heart of the building is a formal end stage theatre. Laban is one of Europe's leading institutions for dance artist training, and the theatre has been designed specifically for the requirements of Laban and contemporary dance.
Carr and Angier were appointed theatre consultants early on in the project, allowing the design team to call on their experience during the initial design concept of the theatre, as well as in its detailed planning and fitting.
The auditorium seats 300 people on a single raked tier and gives a good view of a 10m (33') dance square on the stage, which may occasionally be increased to an 11m (36') square. A number of seats are removable to provide wheelchair spaces as an auditorium location for the sound mixer, and to enable the use of cameras. Because of the specialized nature of the theatre, there is no trap room or other opening in the main stage floor, and there is no orchestra pit.
At the rear of the auditorium is a spacious lighting and sound control room designed to house groups of students for training as well as for conventional use. Adjacent to this room is the amplifier room, housing the sound and communications equipment racks.
The stage has two dedicated dressing rooms opening into a stage rear crossover corridor. The intention is to give visiting groups an area that they can use as their own while they are in the building. The rooms are provided with different capacities to cater for varying numbers of males and females. A nearby dance studio can also be used as an overflow dressing room when required. Stage deliveries are via a dedicated loading bay through one side of the scene dock and onto the stage. The stage entry door is a large single unit of sound-separating construction.
The auditorium has two lighting bridges to provide safe access to front-of-house spotlights above the seating area. The bridges provide a range of lighting angles to cover the front section of the stage for both dance and other purposes, and are also used for mounting some sections of the auditorium sound loudspeaker system.
Sidelighting positions are provided at two levels at the front of the auditorium above the audience entrance doors. At stage level, removable traps across the front of the stage reveal a footlight trough for use when required. Dip troughs with hinged lids notched for cable entry allow temporary lighting and sound cables to be run up/downstage on either side of the dance floor.
Stage planning is based on suspension only, the height below the grid being limited to 10.8m (35.6'). However, in two areas, the grid are omitted and provide extra height to allow flying up to the underside of the structure above. The first of these areas is above the house curtain and permits it to work as a conventional vertical riser. Immediately upstage of the curtain, an adjustable portal can be used to vary both the width and height of the stage opening. The opening width is adjustable between 8m and 11m (26-36') and the height from 4.5m to 6m (15-20'). The second area is approximately 10m (33') upstage where there is a regular requirement to fly out back cloths and gauzes. This arrangement is a workable compromise where the budget cannot cover a full fly tower.
The suspensions comprise single purchase 400kg (880lb) counterweight sets on 200mm (8") centers operated from a gallery stage right, although the rope locks can be refixed at stage level for operation from the floor when required. The wall frame has the capacity for 61 sets, but due to budget constraints only 29 sets are installed at present. There is also one up/downstage counterweight set each side, and two up/downstage handline sets each side, the latter being split to cover the downstage and upstage halves of the stage respectively. There is an option for using further handline sets as well. A forestage grid giving access to further suspension steels above and between the auditorium lighting bridges allows for temporary suspensions when required. The stage machinery installation was undertaken by Harkness Hall (Boreham Wood).
The stage lighting installation is designed to be as flexible as possible and includes dimmed and non-dimmed circuits, as well as a network of DMX and Ethernet control outlets, and outlets for a remote rigger's control unit for use when focusing and plotting. Currently 96 2.5kW and 34 5kW dimmer channels are installed, but power supplies, dimmer rack carcasses, wiring, and socket outlets in strategic locations are installed to enable this number to be increased to 208 2.5kW and 36 5kW dimmer channels when further funds become available. The system uses Strand Lighting LD90 dimmers, with the Laban Centre's existing ETC Expression 3 desk being reused for control.
A PLC-controlled 25-channel working light control system provides remote control of all non-stage lighting within the stage, fly tower, and on the auditorium lighting bridges. It comprises master control panels onstage and in the control room, and local circuit pushes at various access points. A DMX converter allows the same PLC to control the stage lighting non-dim outlets using either the stage lighting control desk or a bespoke switch panel located adjacent to this.
The auditorium house lighting comprises both dimmed tungsten and switched CFL lighting, and is controlled separately using Strand Lighting's Outlook system. The stage, working, and house light control systems were installed by Northern Light (Edinburgh), with additional loose equipment provided by White Light (London).
The sound and communications system is also designed to be as flexible as possible, with outlets for microphones, audio tie-lines, loudspeakers, intercom, cue lights, and video in strategic locations within the theatre, together with a number of tie-lines to other areas of the building including the lecture theatre, foyer, bar, and performance dance studio.
The sound system uses Nexo PS10, PS15, LS1200, and LS500 loudspeakers, and Crown CE amplifiers, all controlled through a Rane RPM88 processor. The system includes a substantial foldback element as is necessary in a dance venue. The Laban's existing Allen & Heath SC 16/4/2 mixer has been reused, although the infrastructure allows for a 24-channel mixer to be installed in the future.
Communications comprise a Techpro twin-ring technical intercom, a limited number of cue light outlets, and paging to dressing rooms, foyer, control room, and the stage and auditorium. The main stage manager's desk was deleted to save costs, but the infrastructure to enable it to be added remains. Meanwhile, a smaller portable stage manager's desk provides controls for working lights, intercom, and paging, and can either be used onstage, or in the auditorium for rehearsals. Facilities for the hard-of-hearing use Sennheiser's infrared system, with radiators either side of the proscenium.
The sound and communications system was installed by Stagetec (Slough). Other areas in which Carr and Angier were involved included the lecture theatre, where we specified the audiovisual system installed by Northern Light, and the performance dance studio.
Carr and Angier
One of the vital considerations in a building built for dance is the flooring. British Harlequin PLC, based in Tunbridge Wells, England, worked with the building contractors, Ballast Construction, to supply and install Harlequin Liberty sprung floor panels and Harlequin Studio vinyl floors in all the studios, as well as an unsprung maple floor in the Pilates studio, and a sprung maple floor for the main theatre. Additional flooring in the library and archive allows for necessary ventilation under the floor.
Liberty by Harlequin is a floating sub-floor system with wood floor panels of multiple layers bonded with waterproof phenolic resins to form an 18” thick and stable substructure for the vinyl surface, which in the Laban studios is a soft dove gray. The floors are designed to absorb impact and provide an even energy return over the entire surface of the floor. An unusual feature of this project is the built-in heating pipes under the floors.
In the Pilates studio, a 100-seat lecture theatre, and the main theatre space, the Harlequin floors have premium-grade maple (rather than the vinyl in the studios) over the sprung subflooring. Interlocking tongue-and-groove installation has special expansion joints to allow for movement of the sanded and sealed wood.
“The floors are more springy than a traditional wooden floor. If you walk on it, you can see the floor move under your feet,” explains Monica Arnott, project manager for British Harlequin. “The dancers love them. They are very cushioned and shock-absorbent. We have heard nothing but praise from the staff and students.”