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Dance cage: dramatically enclosed by a skeletal concrete structure, this dance centre adds life to the city.

For over a decade, Rudy Ricciotti has celebrated the power of monolithic concrete structures, notably in an early project for a rock music stadium in Vitrolles (AR February 1996). Set amid slagheaps of bauxite, the stadium came wrapped in a big, blind, concrete box, its soot-coloured flanks studded with red lights that glowed in a vaguely diabolic manner. In an age still deeply in thrall to notions of formal and material lightness, Ricciotti consciously espouses the heavy, the rough and the low tech in a kind of architectural arte povera. However, for this latest building, a contemporary dance centre in Aix-en-Provence, there are signs that he is lightening up. The signature dark concrete structure is still in evidence, but here it is reworked as a cage of thick, angular sinews that form a protective armature to a more delicate glazed volume behind. Like a dancer's body, the concrete has a lean yet muscular quality and its lattice-like geometry filters light and casts dramatic shadows across the floors of the dance studios.

Opened at the end of last year, the Central Choregraphique National (CCN) has been over eight years in the making. Under the direction of radical and visionary choreographer Angelin Preljocaj, it is, remarkably, the first centre in France entirely dedicated to contemporary dance. Yet there will be no resident dance troupe; rather, companies will be invited for fixed term residencies, rehearsing and performing under the same roof. Akin to Sadler's Wells in London, this operational model gives the repertoire an immediacy, vibrancy and edge. The building's four rehearsal studios and a 378 seat theatre are backed up by educational facilities to encourage and promulgate public access.

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Already rejoicing in the evocative soubriquet Le Pavilion Noir (The Black Pavilion), Ricciotti's building is an urban showstopper. Squeezed into a tight, sloping site, the glazed box is tautly raked and caressed by angular ribs of charcoal concrete. But this is not simply another gratuitous device. The types of spaces--dance studios and a theatre--needed clear spans (18m wide and up to 30m long) and the external structure is an efficient and expressive means of providing it. At lower levels, the blind box of the theatre anchors the composition, with one floor of offices and two floors of double-height dance studios stacked above. As the building rises, so it becomes physically and experientially lighter, reflected in the gradual tapering of the structural ribs. At either end the concrete cage is braced and bulwarked by partly exposed stair towers.

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Tough and uncompromising, with its industrial grey floors and walls, this is a building designed to be pummelled. As well as the regular poundings of the dancers, overcome by constructing a conventional sprung floor above the concrete slab, other problems included vibrations and noise from the adjacent local train station, potential seismic activity, a high water table, and the machinations of local bureaucracy, all of which help to explain its protracted eight year gestation. Now defiantly complete, the rough, sinewy grace of its architecture adds to the cultural and civic life of the city.

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Article Details
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Author:Slessor, Catherine
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Feb 1, 2007
Words:534
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