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Hands off the best Herzog & de Meuron building in London

1 April 2022

While pictures of the recent storm damage to the Millennium Dome in Greenwich recently delighted the internet, another – and much more worthwhile – building in nearby Deptford has also been battered by the elements. In the course of Storm Eunice, the Laban Dance Centre, designed by Herzog & de Meuron, lost two sections of its polycarbon sheeting, ripped off the north-west elevations and around the entrance.

It would take more than Storm Eunice to knock out this gem of a building by the Swiss architects, but there are other menaces on the horizon. Last year, a dense high-rise residential development, wrapped all too close around it, was granted planning permission. This sparked off the Twentieth Century Society’s attempt to list Herzog & de Meuron’s building at Grade 2*. Now the Society has reapplied to Historic England arguing that ‘suitably conservation-led’ repairs are absolutely essential. The loss of sections of the coloured polycarbonate panels at two points requires a match of materials and colour gradations. The entire building is wrapped seamlessly in a double skin and the subtle shades of the cladding give the Laban effervescence and vitality, like a glass of sherbet, shimmering and moving in front of your eyes.

Among the beneficiaries of the early wave of Arts Council Lottery capital funding, few buildings had as great an impact as the Laban Dance Theatre. It was a beacon of optimism on a rundown sliver of ground overlooking Deptford Creek and in 2003 was awarded the Stirling Prize. Herzog & de Meuron’s building gained much from the collaboration between its architects and the artist, Michael Craig-Martin, who masterminded the shaded colours on the exterior, the rich tones of the interior passages and the bold and graphic mural leading towards the theatre that is the central feature of a surprisingly complex building.

The meeting of architecture and art was one factor that led to the awarding of the Stirling Prize.  In a Park Nights talk at the Serpentine in 2012, Craig-Martin said that Herzog & de Meuron think as artists do, taking their ideas from the place in question. So the shifting coloration of the panels helps to make the building live, its form active and its relationship with its setting responsive. In drab Deptford, they injected a chromatic dance.

Inside the Laban Dance Centre. Photo: View Pictures/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The practice used patterning to great effect in an earlier building, the 1995 manufacturing plant for Ricola at Mulhouse, in which translucent frontage panels are subtly enlivened by printed foliage, pointing to the manufacture of herbal products. That shimmering exterior hides a perfectly conventional concrete frame, with strong glazed interpolations. But the brief for a wide range of rehearsal and performance spaces at Laban led to all sorts of intriguing touches, ideas which include the disguise of the fly tower within the body of the building, since almost all the 13 (now 14) dance studios are on the upper floor. Revelation and enhancement were woven into the Laban with its cranked passages, its hefty black concrete spiral stairs, and the clever use of change of level on site, so that visitors find themselves drawn front to back on a gradually descending ground floor, the momentum given by the plan.

Buildings tend not to be considered for listing until they are at least 30 years old. However, an early listing for the Laban Dance Theatre, which would make it the youngest listed building in the UK, would be more than reassuring. After two decades the building is remarkably fresh and remains a resounding statement of confidence in the quiet neighbourhood delights on and around Deptford Church Street and the spectacular Thomas Archer church of St Paul’s. The new development unapologetically refers to the unity of place it is set to spoil, by naming its public space Harmony Place. But the Laban Dance Theatre needs more than lip service.  It needs statutory protection.