I returned to Laban yesterday to see a project I worked on ten years ago – see original outline here. Rob Leslie-Carter (Director at Arup was the Project manager on the building), arranged the reunion tour for all who worked on the project, I’ve used his words as our ‘Guest Blogger’.
The Laban building always was one for keeping you hooked. I remember Harry Gugger saying that walking around the building was like wandering along a beach staring out at the ocean – always changing, never the same experience, endless. This afternoon was new and old in equal measure for me.
Old: The building is timeless and still looking as good as it did when it opened ten years ago. Student proof, well designed and detailed – the place is a testament to Marion North’s experience and determination, balanced by Anthony Bowne’s understanding and endless trust in good design, and the depth and professionalism of the people that make-up the Laban organisation. You just can’t turn something like the Laban building from a crazy sounding vision to reality without a whole bunch of people getting behind it through good times and tough times. Revisiting the place brings some things back like it was yesterday. Things that were never quite right are still not quite right – some broken panes of glass, rooms that are too hot or too cold, water features that never worked, moss that never grew – they are a reminder that finishing a project is just the beginning of the users living with, relying on and adapting to a building for the next 100 years or so. It’s also the reality of delivering such an innovative building for £14M when it looks and feels five times the price. Some of the defining features of the building – the colour scheme, the polycarbonate cladding, Michael Craig Martin’s mural, the bendywood handrails, the landscape, the bush hammered ‘black like molasses’ spiral stairs and walls, the exposed services and concrete, the theatre fly-towers and interiors, the green roof – were all midstream improvisations and adaptations to meet the budget without compromising quality, durability, and the design teams’ ethos of always combining form with function. It’s not perfect, but every beautiful square inch has a purpose. It is a building without a single gimmick.
New: Some people there today hadn’t seen the finished Laban building at all even though they played a major part in making it happen. Like many of the people there today, I hadn’t seen Laban for the last ten years. I’d never seen the garden with grass, and seeing 50 or so students outside this afternoon proudly rehearsing on top of the beautifully sculpted landscape was surreal and totally joyous. Anthony Bowne mentioned that the first set of students that knew Laurie Grove and moved to the Laban building felt intimidated by its transparency and openness, and that only the new first year students truly embraced the idea. Performing in the open is now clearly part of the Laban experience for students, and it was an absolute pleasure to see them obliviously parading what they do best.
I’d forgotten how mesmerising the setting is. A multi-coloured plastic box in the heart of an industrial wasteland, connected through huge internal streets and gigantic windows to St Pauls Church and New Cross in one direction, Greenwich and Trinity College in the other, and the ever ‘charismatic’ Deptford Creek shimmering along one side. Deptford is definitely a location for the more determined traveller, so the Laban building will always retain an exciting element of being a surprise gem. If the Laban building was on the London tourist trail it would be truly world famous, although this sounds odd recognising it is a Stirling Prize winner and named five years ago as Britain’s best building.
Mostly, I’d forgotten what a vibrant and progressive organisation Laban is. The theatre is a fantastic cigar box of a venue but it’s the crew that make it the place dance companies want to come. The amazing demonstration from Emma Redding in the Dance Science Lab reminded me how cutting edge Laban is and how little about it I know. Chatting to Veronica Jobbins about the 1,600 kids that come through the building every week put into perspective the breadth of Laban’s reach into the community – Laban is walking the talk and some.