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Architectural ideas are the focus for hopes, aspirations – and fears

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Architects with ambitions for their city should never worry about putting their heads above the parapet, says Paul Finch

Chairing a public meeting in Chelmsford this week was a reminder about how passionate people feel about new architecture on their own patch. The occasion was the first public airing of design ideas for the revitalisation of the local swimming pool and ice rink.

The designers, Robert Hutson Architects, have thus far done a substantial amount of work pro bono, with help from Arup and Gardiner & Theobald. Their proposal vitaminises the site by adding housing, a hotel and spa and, most significantly, a 1,500-seat, multi-use arena. It keeps as much of the existing facilities as possible, but provides a huge increase in space, with an ETFE roof oversailing all the new work.

Significant increases in space and potential uses could be financed via development deals on the non-sporting elements and, since the city council owns the site and buildings freehold, there is at least a diagram suggesting that the city (created in 2012) could mark its new civic status by promoting a first-class facility in its centre. The fact that John Lewis and Waitrose will be developing next door doesn’t do any harm.
As might be anticipated, when presented with a diagrammatic architectural proposal which is at a very early working stage, the concerns of a public audience are not about spatial relationships, circulation or form, but about particular, relatively insular interests.

The first question after the presentation was about the future of the swimming pool, its length and the number of lanes - the proposal was proposing their elimination in favour of leisure! Actually it isn’t, being a diagram capable of adaptation, though the swimming lobby suggestion that the ideal would be a 10-lane, 50m pool was a good example of special pleading.

Next came the climbing wall enthusiasts. Could the architect give assurances that the structure would be absolutely right for the ideal facility? Well yes and no. Then that familiar bugbear - parking. How dare anyone suggest that there should be parking for a sports facility. It would add to congestion and pollution. It would send out a wrong message. I almost asked whether John Lewis would be coming to Chelmsford without parking, but bit my tongue. Another local attacked the anti-parking brigade by reminding them that not everyone lived in the middle of the city.

A more interesting line of enquiry came from a musician worried that cultural activities were often overtaken by sport in these sorts of developments. Would the proposed arena be capable of staging proper musical events? Currently the answer is that anything is possible, because this is a conceptual proposal, not a planning application.

This was a useful occasion, because the proposal is now in the public domain, not least courtesy of the Essex Chronicle, and has had a public discussion where various points of view can be noted for future reference. Surely this sort of locally rooted project, catering for a wide proportion of the population, should be something that is a commonplace, especially for a significant county centre like Chelmsford.

But the main thought that struck me was how the notion of ‘community’ is a very complex one, not necessarily based on geography. Groups with agendas come in all shapes and sizes, but are almost always single-issue. This militates against the assessment of projects in the round, which is what Rob Hutson is trying to elicit, and has partly achieved.

But, in any case, architects with ambitions for their city should never worry about putting their heads above the parapet. The bullets may start flying, but a well-conceived outcome is well worth fighting for.

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