Olympicopolis: Sadler’s Wells & Smithsonian Stratford, London

Ceri Edmunds

Alison Brooks Architects were on one of six teams shortlisted to design a new cultural quarter at the London 2012 Olympic Park, expected to include new outposts of the V&A and Smithsonian museums. On a team with AECOM, Stanton Williams, AKT II, Asif Khan, Carmody Groarke, Charcoalblue and Haworth Tompkins, ABA designed the Sadler’s Wells and Smithsonian.

The Sadler’s Wells Dance Theatre, Choreographic School and Hip Hop Academy is at the heart of the creative complex. An intensely mixed-use building, it forms an animated backdrop to the civic square, it connects to the V&A, it contains floors of additional Gallery Space on its upper levels and, like a great plinth, supports the Smithsonian Institution above. All of this activity is anchored by the monolithic auditorium and its foyers that span between Carpenter’s Road and the Canal-side promenade.

The building is conceived as a huge steel ‘grillage’ – a weathering steel frame with a pleated, accordion-like façade that expresses both permeability and industrial-strength robustness. At night, the deep reveals will create opportunities for dramatic lighting, signage, banners, and balconies. The frame’s triangular folded plates form a colonnade at piazza level, providing a sheltered passage between neighbouring institutions. At upper levels, the plates are modulated to offer shading to glazed areas and frequent balconies around the building’s perimeter: the façade itself act as a stage. At first floor the façade opens to reveal a huge outdoor ‘dancer’s balcony’ fronting the Sadlers Wells fly-tower. This high-level stage overlooks the square, a prime location for watching events below.

Above Sadler’s Wells hovers the Smithsonian Institution. This autonomous volume acts as beacon, its faceted exterior expressed in mirror-polished stainless steel. In contrast to the cor-ten steel of Sadlers Wells that refers to the site’s industrial legacy, the Smithsonian galleries are enclosed with an enigmatic, ever-changing reflective surface of mirror polished steel. By using two modes of the same raw material, the stacked institutions express both the industrial nature of ‘warehouse theatre’ and an extraordinary ‘cabinet of curiosities’, the building also reveals the multiple structural and visual qualities of a ferrous, carbon-based metal.

The Smithsonian Institution is world renowned for its vast collection of artifacts, its research and its public engagement across its 19 museums. To reflect this significance the Smithsonian Galleries building has been uniquely positioned as a ‘small tall building’ at the centre of the new Cultural Quarter.  Hovering above the Sadler’s Wells building, atop a great five storey high ‘vertical foyer’ the Smithsonian has three significant roles: to act as a ‘beacon’ announcing the quarter’s civic square from a distance; to signal a public ‘rooftop destination’ and skygarden, to represent the Cultural Quarter’s international reach and culture of sharing.

The Smithsonian is articulated as an autonomous volume clad in mirror-polished stainless steel, folded and pleated in a similar manner to the Sadler’s Wells rust coloured frame. This folded mirrored surface will create an ever-changing myriad of light and colour, reflecting the weather, surrounding landscapes and the night sky. At the same time this high volume shelters its sculpture court and roof garden. The four levels of the building are articulated as setbacks to allow light from above to wash down between the layered walls, or to act as viewing platforms.

A glittering cabinet of curiosities, this elevated setting for the Smithsonian’s collections will offer an intense, immersive environment for its visitors and participants – a truly public platform for discovering and diffusing new knowledge.

Sadler's Wells Theatre , Smithsonian Institution
12,000 m²
Shortlisted Competition