New home for English National Ballet to celebrate its 70th year

English National Ballet has relocated to a new 93,000sq ft centre in the East of London, designed by Glenn Howells Architects (GHA). This amalgamation of previously disparate campuses into a multi-faceted ‘dance factory’ marks 70 years of one of Britain’s greatest arts institutions in January 2020.

With world class facilities, new community outreach capabilities, and a near translucent exterior, the new building transforms the way in which the organisation honours the original vision set out by founders Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin to take classical ballet to the highest quality to the midwest possible audience. The new £27million building is located on London City Island, a peninsula on the Thames near Canning Town station that is being converted into a new neighbourhood by EcoWorld Ballymore. ENB is a key part of the overall vision for the area, a ‘cultural anchor’ that will serve as a catalyst for growth.

Wrapped in distinctive, translucent white cladding, the new dance centre provides world-class studio, costume, medical and production facilities. These include 7 full-sized rehearsal studios, dedicated engagement and learning spaces, as well as English National Ballet School – previously located in Chelsea – which is accommodated on the top two floors. In addition, the building includes offices for over 200 ENB staff.

Tamara Rojo CBE, Artistic Director of English National Ballet said: “Our new home is a hub for creativity, where imaginations will be ignited. It will be a springboard where artists from all disciplines can meet, grow, exchange, and inspire each other, creating work that can be shared with audiences up and down the country and across the world. It is a space where everyone can feel welcome, where we can increase our engagement with our local community, and where people of all ages, young and old, from all backgrounds can enjoy our art form. I truly believe that this is the best ballet centre in the world, which will transform the way ballet is created.”

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Commissioned in 2014, GHA was briefed to design a creative space for making and dancing that will serve as a new focal point for ballet in London. The main challenge for the architect was providing the required extensive range of flexible, state-of-the-art facilities on a narrow site and with a comparatively challenging budget. “We achieved this by creating something that is elegant, pared-back and beautiful, but also hard working,” says Glenn Howells, director and founder of GHA. “The key has been designing the building so that its character is defined by a celebration of exposed raw materials such as concrete ceilings and translucent glass walls.”

ENB’s new home is part of a cluster of three conjoined buildings positioned alongside Hopewell Square at the centre of London City Island. The ground floor is designed as a lively gathering and circulation space which acts as the soul of the building, with a public café and future exhibition space encouraging interaction between the school and the company. The building also houses a green room, treatment rooms and stretching areas for the company, and spaces for back-of-house specialists such as technicians, set builders and costume ateliers to work. New costume workshop facilities will enable the company to create and adjust costumes in-house for the very first time.

The main production studio features a 10m x 16m stage space and a 25m tall fly tower. The other facilities are arranged over three upper levels, and the building is topped with a green roof. Rehearsal studios are typically 15 x 15 x 15m wall-to-wall, and all include an external clear glazed viewing window to help welcome the outside in. Medical facilities including a hydrotherapy pool and ice bath are accommodated on the second floor. The office, education and retail parts of the building have been designed to achieve BREEAM ‘Very Good’ rating.

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The translucent white cladding is a particular design feature, contrasting with the colourful surrounding buildings and allowing passers-by to catch glimpses of the professional dancers as they rehearse. This is achieved using 3,600sq m of Linit, an extra white translucent glass, which provides privacy whilst offering a hint of the dynamic movement of the dancers in the studios. Elsewhere in the building, glass and exposed concrete surfaces give the interiors a distinctive raw and pared-back appearance. The limited material palette and the use of standard, off the shelf, hardworking components has helped to ensure that the building can meet the challenging budget.

The Production Studio can also be used as an auditorium for ENB’s outreach programme with local schools and other stakeholders, giving the ENB the ability to rent out spaces whilst touring and thus increasing the company’s financial stability. This represents a new model for arts buildings, providing a financial springboard at a time of diminishing public funds.

Supported by the Mayor of London’s Good Growth Fund as well as the Arts Council England’s Large Scale Capital Programme, the new building will facilitate ENB’s new skills programme Bridging Neighbourhoods, Growing Talent as well as providing new jobs for the area.

ENB is the latest in a line of cultural institutions to invest in new facilities in the East End of London including the Victoria and Albert Museum and the London Film School. The latter will be joining the ENB at London City Island in 2021. Future East London cultural developments include East Bank, and the planned education district at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

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