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NATIONAL SPORTS CENTRE REBORN

AGENDA

The National Sports Centre (NSC) in Crystal Palace, south London - spiritual home of British championship swimming - has received both bouquets and brickbats since it was built in the 1960s. From the turn of this century its future has been in doubt, with the building recently coming within a hair's breadth of demolition.

But now this notable example of Modernist architecture looks set to be revamped for the 2012 Olympic Games, and then reworked into a dry sports pavilion.

Arup Associates' sensitive and logical proposal, revealed exclusively to the AJ, preserves the fabric of the building - although the NSC's famous pool will disappear. In essence, the NSC will evolve into a 'naturally ventilated' pavilion dedicated to dry sports, standing within a rejuvenated Crystal Palace Park masterplanned by Latz + Partner.

The NSC is undoubtedly worth its Grade II*-listed status, not least because it embodies the egalitarian principles of post-war municipal architecture that ushered in such landmarks as the Royal Festival Hall and the Commonwealth Institute.

Designed by London County Council Architects in 1964, the impressive NSC is currently hemmed in by peripheral buildings and walkways. Sadly, it has also been neglected by its former freeholder, the London Borough of Bromley, but still functions as one of few 50m indoor pools in southern England - and the only one in London.

The structure is simple - a vast rectangular concrete frame with glazed infill, and a gently zigzagged roof supported by a cantilevered central spine.

Pevsner sums up the NSC as 'impressive, not least because there is no attempt to impress, no contrived effects.'

The London Development Agency (LDA), the NSC's current owner, has long wished to demolish the building as part of the wider regeneration of Paxton's Victorian Crystal Palace Park - against the wishes of English Heritage (EH) and the Twentieth Century Society (C20) ( ajplus 19.07.06). But, in an unexpected change of heart, the LDA has decided to preserve the NSC as an ancillary training pool to Zaha Hadid's Olympic Aquatic Centre. After the 2012 Games, the pool will be decked over for indoor sports such as five-a-side football.

The proposed scheme - which goes in for planning late this summer - is derived from several solutions for the NSC put forward by Arup Associates as part of an extensive public consultation staged in 2005.

The solutions ranged from refurbishment to building a new sports complex around an existing athletics stadium opposite the NSC.

The chosen solution - which will reportedly cost a modest £3 million - will initially involve refurbishment of the NSC's plant and services, along with a much-needed revamp of wet changing facilities and improvements to the pool hall in time for the 2012 Games.

Under the legacy scheme to follow, landscaping will be banked up to the height of the existing pool so that interior and exterior appear on one level. The demolition of peripheral buildings, such as the training pool extension, and ugly elevated concrete walkways, along with the removal of security fences and tarmac slip roads, are intended to enhance the NSC's striking features and surrounding parkland. 'The aim is to reinstate the historic Paxton access to allow people to move freely through the park while maintaining the existing Grade-II* NSC building, ' explains Arup Associates lead architect, Lee Hosking.

According to C20, Arup Associates' restoration of the NSC sets a precedent for other endangered buildings from this era. 'Of course it's regrettable that swimming will not be a part of the NSC's long-term future', says C20 case worker Jon Wright, 'but dry sports is a compromise'.

C20 has long campaigned to prevent the demolition of the NSC, teaming up with Julian Harrap Architects to show how it could be saved by creating new local infrastructure, such as housing, that would subsidise NSC preservation and maintenance.

Both the society and EH worked with Arup Associates in devising the current scheme and do not oppose proposed alterations and localised demolitions. 'Arup Associates is clearly pushing in the right direction, ' says Wright. 'This is such an impressive building and we are delighted that there is a future for it.'

For its part, EH describes the proposal as 'balanced' within the realm of the historic Crystal Palace park. '[Arup] is doing what we hoped, ' says EH historic buildings adviser, Malcolm Woods.

Ultimately the LDA plans to build a new regional sports facility - including a swimming pool - elsewhere in Crystal Palace Park, and also intends to remodel the athletics stadium opposite the NSC.

An architectural competition may be held and, no doubt, Arup Associates will be among practices jostling for the prize.

The NSC was Britain's first purpose-built sports centre and, when first unveiled, was praised by the Architectural Review in May 1967 as the 'finest of its kind' in Britain.

The building's sporting heyday may have passed, but, as a striking example of 1960s architecture, its future appears assured.

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