Glenn Howells Architects’ headquarters for the English National Ballet forms the heart of a new London neighbourhood. Lucy Bullivant reports

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Five minutes from Canning Town station, the new home of the English National Ballet (ENB) at the northern tip of London City Island, wrapped in white translucent glass, presents itself as a gleaming still life. A lightbox silhouetting ENB’s world-class professionals and students on three levels after dark, it is also a place where members of the public can enjoy classes and performances.

ENB is London’s latest lean machine for the creative industries. At a time when the sector generates one in six of London’s new jobs and associated skills programmes with apprenticeships and opportunities for thousands of local people, developers have to embed cultural anchors into their schemes to put them on the map and generate local economic growth.

As the first of two cultural anchors on the Island to be completed (the second is the London Film School a short walk to the south, under construction and due for completion in 2021), ENB aims to be an effective catalyst, engaging with the local community and visitors from further afield.

London City Island, developed by EcoWorld Ballymore, and designed and masterplanned by Glenn Howells Architects (GHA), has taken form in less than five years, intervening in the deprived geography of Poplar E14 and east London beyond Canary Wharf. It feels like a mixed-use, fast-track, cousin of Stratford’s larger cultural district, now emerging to the north. Easily walkable, with a masterplan defined by trapezoidal shapes like an organic patchwork, it feels well composed and scaled.

The apartment blocks and townhouses have their own industrial vernacular, with big windows, and aprons to catch the wind. The 1,700 homes here are now close to being fully let, including quite a lot of families occupying duplexes. Crossing onto the peninsula bounded on the north side by the River Lea via a new hydraulic bridge, you quickly reach Hopewell Square, the piazza where the ENB sits between two large buildings, and facing two smaller ones, including a future supermarket, overlooking the attractively landscaped garden of the neighbouring housing blocks. The piazza has already hosted an ice rink and a Christmas market, and close by offices, co-working spaces, galleries, and the Island’s clubhouse with the Island Grocer restaurant at the foot of one of the housing blocks, and outdoor greenery, have kickstarted life at ground-floor level.

Founded in 1950, the ENB established a ballet school in 1988 for dancers aged 16 to 19. Since 1951 its home has been a cramped labyrinth of rehearsal rooms at Markova House next to the Royal Albert Hall, lacking production facilities and meeting rooms. It badly wanted to continue developing world-class artists and performances but was held back by its physical environment, explains artistic director Tamara Rojo. She and ENB non-executive board members Grenville Turner, Justin Bickle and Caroline Turner found the idea of a new home with a more youthful image in east London very appealing and decided to move to the Island.

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Throughout the building GHA’s design accentuates movement, through the generosity of proportions, facilitation of natural light, and the translucency of the facade glass catching the glow within as ambient light levels fall outside. It is four times as big as Markova House, accommodating up to 100 dancers (aged 18 to 45) at any one time, and 120 staff in the costume, stage, lighting and admin departments. The transparent, open and welcoming Dorfman Foyer, including a public cafe, quickly establishes the building’s calibre, its robust character underlined by the exposed concrete ceiling. A sense of drama and surprise are fed in through the sheer height and sweeping nature of the staircase to three upper levels, and a huge wall-hung, ENB-made artwork of a twirling Rojo catches the eye on every floor.

The trapezoidal Production Studio, its shape a product of GHA’s masterplan for the Island itself, is hugely adaptable, with a 10 by 16-metre stage space, bleacher seats and a 25-metre-high (five-storey) fly tower tall enough for all scenery to be flown in, and large enough to accommodate run-throughs (with orchestra) of productions destined for the London Coliseum and the Royal Albert Hall, the largest venues the company operates in. It beats the versatility of Ballet Rambert and the Laban Centre’s production studios.

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Rojo believes the new building will transform the way ballet is created, opening up the innovative process of dance as an art form for more people to participate in and benefit from. Seven large, light and airy studios accommodate the dancers’ rehearsals, teaching and the creation of new commissions. They are wide span at 15 by 15 metres wall-to-wall, with clear-glazed viewing windows to connect to the outside. Shrewd window placement around the building, including a display window in the costume department on the main stair, frames views of the Island and the city beyond.

With its limited palette of hard-wearing materials, the design is a calm mix of elements responding pragmatically to both a modest budget (all the wood was donated) and a highly ambitious programme. Only one or two spaces are more hermetic. There is a music rehearsal room for the English National Ballet Philharmonic. The dancers have a windowed dining room and breakout space to eat and relax in, and a health suite with a gym, Pilates studio, hydrotherapy pool and rehabilitation facilities. There is a video editing suite, and the largely open-plan offices and the board room have windows that open.

The pièce de résistance is GHA’s choice of translucent Linit structural glass, which complements the different brick tones of neighbouring housing blocks. The compositional USP is the non-orthogonality of the plans consistent with the masterplan, which, with wide circulation routes, gives users and visitors to the hard-working spaces a nimble sense of freedom.

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The costume department, greatly expanded from its previous, very cramped quarters, is quite factory-like, not too precious. “Everything is the product of necessity”, says Daniel Mulligan, director at GHA, who has led on the ENB and the London City Island project overall. The steel structure, long-lasting materials and standard, off-the-shelf components create an authentic, stripped-down finish for a purpose-built machine. “We like it because that’s what the ENB is like – a lean organisation”. Yet the overall impact is of a mature design at ease with itself.

ENB’s big move entailed masterminding its building programme to be highly sustainable, with spaces to earn it money in the future. For example, the Production Studio is being used as an auditorium for ENB’s outreach programme with local schools and other stakeholders. Renting out spaces while ENB is away touring increases the company’s income.

The new building came in at £27m, just over £3,000 per square metre, low by comparison with similar arts buildings that are more likely to be £5,000 per square metre. Besides significant philanthropic support, £5m came from the sale of Markova House, £3m came from Arts Council England’s Capital Large Grants Programme, funded by the National Lottery, and £1m from the Mayor of London’s Good Growth Fund, to help facilitate local jobs and apprenticeships. The Island already benefits from the spatial DNA that GHA has created, which gives the place a cohesion, but the presence of ENB gives the whole area social value.

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A lot of locals have signed up for ballet classes, which augurs well for the centre’s future as a local community asset. ENB’s new building is a hub for the Greater London Authority’s new skills programme, Bridging Neighbourhoods, Growing Talent.

This provides training, apprenticeships, volunteering and learning opportunities for 4,000 Londoners over the next three years, and supports the growth of local jobs. ENB also runs Dancing East, classes for the over-50s, and Dance for Parkinson’s in five east London boroughs.

Central Saint Martin’s at King’s Cross and Here East (opening the way for the V&A, Sadlers Wells and other cultural partners) at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, were pivotal outriders in their respective district regeneration schemes made possible by ample public transport links. ENB takes advantage of the new transport infrastructure of Canning Town station, and wider local change including housing developments on site on the north bank of the River Lea, and fosters jobs and leisure interests among people of disparate socio-economic backgrounds, on their doorsteps.

At a time when the creative industries put £52bn into the national economy, the ability of new districts planned outside of central London to foster first-class cultural partners gives them a pragmatic underpinning, and hopefully a sense of higher purpose.

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