Page N3.2 . 05 November 2003                     
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    Herzog and de Meuron Stirling Prize


    Inside the Box

    From the outside, Laban is a simple box, but inside, it becomes a complex of studios, stairwells, a theater, and a library. Each of the 13 dance studios has a different size, height, form, and color. The poured-in-place concrete frame incorporates curved walls and ramps. Two courtyards sunk into the building's roof structure allow light to penetrate deep into the building.

    Two elements of the interior stand out. First is the pair of black rough-finished concrete spiral staircases, one of them at the building entry. There is a fleeting impression of disproportion about this feature, but this feeling dissipates quickly. The concrete curves seem to organize the circulation routes, the horizontal as well as the vertical. They delimit a small reception area and provide an element of control over the main space.

    The second interesting element is "Bendywood." Throughout the building, in corridors, stairwells, and dance studios, are 820 feet (250 meters) of slender, undulating handrails made with a new technology for wood manipulation. This is the first major public installation of Bendywood.

    Circulation at Laban is an adventure. The upper and lower levels are connected by the two spiral staircases that are as much sculptures as a means of access. The interior is like an urban streetscape, with a series of corridors and courtyards centered on the 300-seat theater. The main spaces are all visually free-floating individual volumes.

    The corridors have a freeform shape reflecting the almost turbulent beauty of the site. The ubiquitous handrails ensure that even the corridors have an element of chaos, never mundane, and yet functional.

    Dancing Floors

    In the dance studios, windows and mirrors are an essential element of every room. So too is the composition of the flooring, which absorbs impact and provides energy return. The floating "Harlequin Liberty" subfloor system has laminated birch panels resting on dual-density elastomer blocks spaced at regular intervals. The multiple layers, totaling 3/4 inches (18 millimeters) thick, are bonded with waterproof phenolic resins to form a substructure for the vinyl surface.

    An unusual feature at Laban was the use of under-floor heating with water pipes buried in the screed. Tests were conducted in conjunction with the Swedish manufacturers Wirsbo, to ensure that sufficient heat would pass through the floor without detriment to the panel or dance surface.

    Landscaping is an integral part of the design, with geometric mounds to provide a backdrop for outdoor rehearsal and performance areas. The gardens, designed by Zurich-based landscape architects, Vogt Landschaftsarchitekten, have been split into several areas, each characterized by a different style of landscape and foliage.

    Near the road entrance, a variety of maple trees have been planted. They're joined by a wilderness of plants creeping up the walls of the creek from the tidal waters. In the middle of the garden, a new boulevard is flanked by tall birches aligned on axis between Laban and St. Paul's Church. There is also a large open lawn at the lowest level of the garden adjacent to an outdoor cafe with views to the river.

    If Laban glows during the day, at night it positively radiates. Creekside on a gray day will never be the same again. Subtle shades of color shimmer across the once gloomy waters of the Deptford Creek. Laban shows how one building can transform the urban landscape.

    Don Barker is a freelance writer and photographer in London, UK, who has lived and worked in Europe, Australia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, and Singapore. He is a contributing editor to ArchitectureWeek.


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    ArchWeek Image

    Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron have just received the Stirling Prize for Laban, a center for contemporary dance.
    Photo: Don Barker

    ArchWeek Image

    Long, thin sections of layered polycarbonate give the building its distinctive appearance.
    Photo: Don Barker

    ArchWeek Image

    Looking down one of Laban's spiral staircases, with its curving black concrete walls and "Bendywood" handrails.
    Photo: John Blythe

    ArchWeek Image

    The studio floors are of a special shock absorbing structure and surface.
    Photo: Merlin Hendy and Martyn Rose

    ArchWeek Image

    Glass wall and "Bendywood" handrails along one of Laban's interior ramps.
    Photo: John Blythe

    ArchWeek Image

    The Laban foyer.
    Photo: John Blythe


    Click on thumbnail images
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