The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

The National Recreation Centre, Crystal Palace, or the sad saga of public post-war architecture

The National Recreation Centre was designed and built at a time when the national government generously invested in good architecture for the public. In 1954, just after the Royal Festival Hall had opened, the LCC Architects’ Department started drawing up plans for a sports venue in Crystal Palace Park, together with a stadium and a small tower block for the accommodation of athletes. This new world of sports was thought to be the healthy answer to the loss of Crystal Palace, that had burned down in 1936. The desperately empty park was given a new function, but the main building was not opened until 1964, long after Leslie Martin had left the LCC. Nevertheless it speaks the enthusiastic language of the 1950s.

The NRC is the masterpiece of the reinvented park. It sits comfortably in the slopes of the landscape but its architecture is by no means modest. The NRC houses a 50 metre pool and different ball game spaces, all under one roof. A concrete frame and generously glazed facades build the exterior, an A-frame running down the middle of the building holds it up. The structure is simple and brave – it isn’t much more than a roof and walls for an activity, but the structural details were cleverly turned into good architecture. Most remarkable is the central walkway which is enveloped by slender beams, the A-frame, that lead up to the ceiling. The NRC is a huge building and its spirit is maybe best described as socialist. It is a space of interaction between the different sports; the swimmers just need to cross the main aisle of the building to watch a football game, and the ball teams can easily jump into the pool for a few refreshing lanes. Still today anyone can train or watch for just over a pound. Somehow the NRC is reminiscent of the Royal Festival Hall – it is a huge, beautifully detailed, continuous interior, built for the public. And it works.

After so much awe about the qualities and social ambitions of this building it is painful to see the state it is in today and, even more sadly, the attitude of its owner. The NRC needs repairing and cleaning, someone has to take down the monstrous fences surrounding most of the building, and it is a mystery why the grand main entrance is blocked and visitors have to sneak into the building via the poorly refurbished athletes’ entrance in the basement. The NRC is surrounded by a jungle of unnecessary streets that cut through the park. It is generally presented as an unfortunate accident rather than an architectural star. Bromley Council, the current owner, has not inherited the generous way of thinking that lead to the construction of this great house for the public. It has not invested in the upkeep of the building, did not take it on as a valuable but work-intensive property and seems to regard it as a burden. Bromley has leased the building to Sports England who have been trying to pull out of their contract last year but could be convinced to stay until 2006 by the Greater London Authority. The GLA has now taken on the project to consider the NRC’s future. In autumn 2004 the GLA together with the London Development Agency will publish a strategy for the NRC. Once again, after their failed refurbishment scheme in 1999, Arup’s have been commissioned to look into different options. This could be the end of the building’s misery, if London can decide to accept and maintain the building. But the possibility of demolition is also being discussed. Talks with GLA and LDA have revealed that money is the driving force. If the building cannot be made viable, demolition is seen as the only answer. Allegedly the yearly sum needed for maintenance would be £2 million, and Arup’s former calculations for a refurbishment added up to over £50 million. The GLA does not seem to be prepared to even think about these sums. But they might not even need to: Arup’s 1999 numbers can be easily slimmed by cutting out extensions like tennis courts outside the building. The NRC is grade II* listed, hence it cannot be simply bulldozed. But the word is out and the building is at risk. Replacement buildings have been suggested by both Bromley and London, including a new smaller sports facility at the opposite end of the park for local use. But if the NRC goes, the swimmers in Southern England would lose their only 50 metre pool and the park would be left without its architectural focus. The other option, refurbishment, is also being considered but not yet in a sufficiently sensitive way. Elements like the exterior walkway that leads up to the main entrance have been earmarked for removal – Arup’s need to understand that such elements serve a function and are part of the original concept and should not be taken down. A scheme similar to the radical refurbishment of the Royal Festival Hall would not be an acceptable alternative to the demolition of the NRC.

Cordula Zeidler