(from Guardian website Saturday February 7, 2004)
The fanfare which greeted the £31m Clissold leisure centre could scarcely have been louder. A state of the art sports facility in one of the poorest boroughs in the country, the design was paraded around the the world by the British Council, the Foreign Office and the Millennium Commission.
It was one of “12 for 2000″; buildings meant to symbolise a brave new century and lauded as “prime examples of the excellence of British architecture and design”. But after less than two years the aluminium and glass complex – hailed for its “functional modernism” – has been shut on safety grounds.
The centre, in Hackney, east London, is plagued by flaws which have seen walls cracking, roofs leaking, water pouring into the electrical fittings and drains backing up. The showpiece swimming pools are seriously damaged and the walls of the squash courts are crumbling.
As the adults and children who used the centre troop by, the tubular automatic doors stay shut. A single security guard sits in the gloomy half-light of the reception area.
A building meant to raise the spirits has begun to appear drab. On the side overlooking the street and a school, two large glass panels have been broken and one is held together with sticking tape. As the school emptied last week, a boy with tousled brown hair crossed the road to pick at the jagged glass.
The centre closed last November, initially for a week, which was extended to three months. But the problems are so serious that some of those involved cannot be certain that it will ever open again. When it closed, a sign was pasted up to reassure the public that the closure would only last three months. The deadline has since been erased with Tippex.
Last week, amid growing public disquiet about the loss of what had become a much loved facility and concern about the colossal waste of public money, the beleaguered council sent in an architect to find out what could have gone so wrong. But following comments from the Audit Commission which suggest the building has “systematic design faults”, the council has also sent for its lawyers.
Diane Abbott, the local MP, said: “This may have been feted as one of 12 millennium projects but because of the design, it was very difficult to build. The local authority were the project managers. Why take delivery of a building that was not fit for its use?” She said the debacle had hit the area hard and may require a public inquiry. “This building sucked up money that could have been used on other facilities. Other pools were closed. It is a lovely looking building but I think the design may have been too clever for its own good.”
Eric Ollerenshaw, the leader of Hackney’s Tories, said the closure was embarrassing for all concerned. “This was seen as a key symbol in the revival of Hackney. Much was said about serving the diverse communities and they were going to have things like special sessions for Muslim ladies. But then they had to scrap that be cause the whole thing is glass and they realised that everyone would be able to see in. There was to be a glass viewing area too, but health and safety officials would not allow it to be used because they considered it unsafe.”
Mr Ollerenshaw said councillors and residents were desperate for information. “It is Hackney’s own Millennium Dome fiasco and the majority of councillors have not got a clue what is going on because we are told this is in the hands of the lawyers and it is all confidential.”
It should all have been so different. The centre was funded by Hackney with “match funding” from the government’s sporting quango, Sport England. The original estimated cost was £7m but that soon proved woefully inaccurate. As costs grew and the intricacies of building what had been designed became apparent, so did the delays and the centre opened two years late.
Greg McNeill ran the Clissold Swimming Club there, teaching youngsters how to swim and then coaching them to county competition standard. “People who used the centre on a daily basis were complaining from day one,” he said. “There were leaks, the plumbing system didn’t work properly. It wasn’t safe to use the showers because you got scalded or frozen. The ceiling started falling down because of the damp and condensation. When we said all this we were called whingers.”
Ken Worpole, of the Clissold Users’ Group, said many preferred a less elaborate design. “I think their heads were dizzied by this wonderful architecture. It is the wrong building at the wrong time in the wrong place fulfilling the wrong function.”
Hackney is in a bind. The centre is in Stoke Newington, where working-class families live alongside middle-class professionals. Both grow angrier by the day, at the loss of the centre and a perceived dearth of information. A well-used website fuels the protest campaign.
But with the possibility of a legal case, the council feels the less said publicly the better. That strategy may be legally sound but it is politically problematic. A spokeswoman said: “We have a duty to defend the financial interests of the Hackney council tax payer, which is why we have been robustly pursuing this action since we were advised by counsel that we had a good case.”
Despite repeated requests, no one was available for comment at the award winning architects Hodder Associates, based in Manchester. That silence speaks volumes in east London, where officials mourn not just the loss of much-needed sports facilities but the chance to kickstart regeneration with a world-class building.