Wednesday, 25 May 2016

DOCOMOMO's application to Historical England Brixton Recreation Centre

DOCOMOMO's application to Historical England
Brixton Recreation Centre



Historical Context
The history of the social and physical change in Brixton during the post war welfare
state period is unique because of the scale of immigration, social stress and the
physical decay of existing buildings. Redevelopment was designed and built in response
to perceived needs, sometimes misplaced, sometimes under resourced.
Also unique was the level of ambition by both politicians and architects in striving for a
level of quality for solutions, with sometimes inadequate resources, against and within
a sometimes hostile and ignorant London and National context.
The combination has left a heritage that is flawed but rich in diversity and
achievement. The achievement is there, and it should be celebrated and nourished.
Listing of buildings has a part to play in ensuring that the quality of ambition and scale
is properly recognised despite or because of previous neglect and misunderstanding.
The idea that peoples needs, physical and mental health, education and cultural
pursuits, needed to be addressed by common agreement and action grew through the
19th and early 20th century so that by 1937 (in nearby Peckham) the first Health Centre
came into being. By the 1960s with increased population and the founding of the
Welfare State, the need for Recreation and Exercise in high density deprived urban
areas lacking open space was recognised. Attention was given to swimming and other
forms of exercise that could be done in a confined space and internal recreation with
easy access should receive public investment for the public good.
It was also recognised that the grouping of different facilities together also encourage
interaction, by sharing of facilities, flexibility for change and response to changing
needs. Transport links and the more casual benefits of a welcoming environment with
easy access were recognised. Given the racial nature of much immigration in Brixton, a
physical forum that recognised diversity was a high priority.

2. Location
The lack of available open space combined with the proximity of overhead railways in
central Brixton were problems which led to the ambitious idea for locating the
proposed Recreation Centre at high level next to the railway.
High level location with a ‘safe’ (from cars) pedestrian walkway linking buildings was a
fashionable idea in the sixties stemming from a misreading of Le Corbusier’s planning
ideas (in his schemes he invariably place the vehicles in the air, and left plenty of space
on the ground for the pedestrians) being misapplied to the problems of existing city
centre areas. Here the ambition to link to future high-rise housing that did not
materialise was unfortunate. Where sufficiently large areas are served by walkways (as
at the Barbican) were achieved and maintained they worked well, here in Brixton the
walkways being blocked off have become a contradictory cause of security risk with all
the problems that follow.
However, there are reasons to be optimistic at Brixton. There are multiple means of
both pedestrian and vehicle access/escape to and from the complex which for
understandable reasons have remained blocked and ‘protected’ wit security fences and
gates to maximise access. The proximity of the Police Station to the rear and the
history of the unfortunate social disorder and riots has left its mark and clearly
strangled’ the Recreation Centre for far too long and are a hangover from the past
that should now be re-addressed so that inherent potential for accessible flexible
diversity is released.
The expansion of the adjoining and thriving street market is a clear sign of
regeneration confirmed by recent interest for economic redevelopment. The similar
Borough market at London Bridge and Camden Lock Market have become expanding
areas of regeneration. The Social, Integrated, Diverse population has caught up with
Social,Integrated,Diverse nature of the original architecture of the Recreation Centre.
This is a reason for the opening up and positive reuse of the Recreation Centre along
the line of ambition originally intended, for a new and diverse increased use.
At long last it has the potential to realise its use and not be subjected to removal or
demolition. The modifications needed could be carried out for a fraction of the cost of
demolition and consequent unsustainable energy loss avoided by reopening and
modifying access at many locations on and beyond the perimeter.

External Layout
The high proportion of complex external surface (walkways and walls) some covered,
others uncovered, have inherent problems. However, technology has advanced since
the initial completion and what is now required is imaginative management combined
with imaginative detail design, using many of the surface materials, lighting and
equipment now available which were unavailable or not even invented when the
original scheme was built. Again, the cost of such modifications is a fraction of that
entailed in demolition and rebuilding. Removal of large unnecessary signage and the
introduction of small-scale helpful signs and user-friendly surface materials can
transform a building of the necessary complexity.

Internal Layout
Despite the external misfortunes that have afflicted the outside, many of the diverse
activities within have clearly prospered and are valued by many. The triangular, top-lit
atrium which provides internal circulation while common in building types such as
hotels and shopping malls where a lavish budget in order to impress has a beneficial
pay back, is here robustly softened with brickwork and planting which if maintained,
can eliminate differential humidity and acoustic problems, to achieve a relaxing
balance to active nature of the surrounding physical activities. While falling a bit short
of such a masterpiece as FLW Guggenheim in NYC, the spatial quality of the atrium here
is as good or on a par with that of the listed Crystal Palace Sports Pool atrium and is a
reason for listing BRC.

Materiality
The use of monolithic vibrant contrasting material combinations was again fashionable
when this building was designed, the question is how appropriate and what skill in
deployment was there her? The differing sizes of volume for the differing recreational
uses are deliberately assembled and clearly expressed in a ‘neo-constructivist’ manner
as in the celebrated and listed Leicester Engineering Building 1961 (architects Stirling
and Gowan)
What is significant here is the lack of rhetoric in ‘shape making’ and the simplicity of
the multiple orthogonal shapes which are gathered and mixed in a subtle arrangement
which yields multiple views integrated with the surrounding, while at the same time
clearly a separate ensemble with its own strong identity. It is this characteristic that
gives the total building including the office block part (which on its own has little
individual character) its specific character within the whole. In comparison with
celebrated Economist Buildings, St James’ Street 1961 (by the Smithsons) the
deployment of blocks is tight and vibrant. And this characteristic merits listing for this

achievement.

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