The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Malvern Sports Dome

The spa town of Malvern in Worcestershire is not the first place that springs to mind when considering revolutionary concrete construction techniques. However, in the grounds of Malvern Girls College is a structure that can lay claim to such a pedigree. Edinburgh Dome, named after the Duke of Edinburgh who opened it in 1978,  is a ‘parashell’ concrete structure which English Heritage is currently assessing for listing. The Society supported a request put forward by local campaigners who acted to save the dome from demolition after the college claimed it was “costly to maintain and not energy efficient”. Thankfully, after local and national media attention and the hard work of some local campaigners, the school has been persuaded not to demolish.

The dome was constructed using a pioneering technique in which liquid cement was poured onto a special neoprene membrane and then pneumatically inflated – in this case to a height of eleven metres. It took just one hour to complete the inflation and two weeks to complete the building.  In May 2007, it celebrates its 30th birthday.

The ‘parashell’, was invented by an Italian, Dante Bini, in 1967 and a few years later, the construction company Norwest Holst bought the sole rights to market the system in England.  In effect, it offered ‘instant’ buildings at a fairly low cost, (£160 per square metre approx.) and was deemed particularly suitable for sports centres for the spurious reason that, and I quote the brochure here; “sports centres really require far more height at the centre of the play area….since the path of the ball is parabolic”.  The architects responsible were Godwin and Cowper, a local practice from Stourport. Partner Michael Godwin had travelled to Italy to see Bini’s work and had considered it entirely suitable for the site at Malvern – not least it seems because the buildings possessed what Godwin termed, ‘ a sense of joy’, something he stated at the time was fundamental to any building being used recreationally.  As one can see from the illustrations, the construction technique appeared simple, but in actual fact required a great deal of meticulous planning and it seems, a good deal of luck at the moment of truth. After inflation, openings were cut into the dome and a lake created around it.  Godwin stated – “when we get to the stage of cutting out the enormous holes for the windows, we shall be pushing building technology to its known limits”. It must have appeared as if Malvern had suddenly become Worcestershire’s first space-port, especially at night when the ingenious use of water and internal lighting created an illusionary interplay which blurred the boundaries between building and landscape and gave the building a decidedly futuristic appearance.

The Edinburgh Dome was not the first, that honour goes to the one constructed at Tingley, in the yard of Norwest Holst, but it has survived intact and has remained a sports centre while many of the other 1500 examples have been lost to demolition. The system continues to be used, though mainly for emergency structures in countries affected by natural disaster. Indeed, their days as habitable, permanent structures would appear to be largely over. Malvern’s example then is a reminder of an era of architectural exploration and experimentation with new materials that resulted in some surprising and beautiful structures. It’s also indicative of an architectural cul-de-sac which was perhaps never fully explored. We hope that English Heritage awards it Grade II status, although a final decision may need to wait until it becomes eligible in May 2007.

Jon Wright