• Thursday , 17 October 2019

Constructing Leisure – the evolution of leisure centres in Belfast

Shankill Leisure Centre, 1980. Shankill Leisure Centre, 1980.

When it was decided that the best way to relieve social unrest in 1970s Belfast was to construct a number of new ‘leisure centres’, those tasked with designing the new facilities were presented with a unique architectural quandary: how do you design a civic building which represents a new and unprecedented typology? Prior to the establishment of the Department of Leisure Centres in 1973, there existed no multi-purpose leisure-based buildings in Northern Ireland; thus, no specific architectural language with which to draw precedence and no preconception as to how the buildings should look.

Freed from any burden of aesthetic acquiescence, the design of this new wave of leisure centres represented a chance to fully explore the meaning of ‘type’; a chance to interrogate the relationship between form, function and civic virtue. However, disappointingly, a large number of these initial buildings ended up as uninspired, shed-like structures, serving mainly as three-dimensionally extruded responses to very specific spatial requirements. Mostly clad in brick with high-level clerestory windows, early buildings such as Avoniel, Shankill and Maysfield Leisure Centres struggled to reconcile any inspiring civic form with the cumbersome requirements of operational and security concerns.

Avoniel Leisure Centre, 1980. Avoniel Leisure Centre, 1980.

While functional considerations dominated the design of many of these early buildings, the desire for civic presence and formal expression was not entirely forfeited from other early schemes. The often overlooked leisure centre in Andersonstown, West Belfast, designed by local architect DJ MacRandall in 1979, stands as an example in which the significance of architectural presence and civic merit were considered as critically as functional requirements.

Immediately recognised by its striking, angular silhouette, this building stands as an unapologetic brutalist sculpture commanding both the attention and intrigue of passers-by. Despite the heaviness of its materiality, Andersonstown leisure centre doesn’t exude a bulky aura of ‘defensiveness’ like many of its built contemporaries; the articulated composition of the building helps to diffuse any feelings of  inhospitality by means of an appropriately scaled entrance and explicit public frontage.  At street level, this frontage is presented as a single storey entrance plinth, adorned with perhaps the building’s most discernible architectural feature; a full length, 4 metre high, rendered concrete relief sculpture. Bedecked with super-graphic, quasi-celtic symbology, this sculptural elevation not only offers an architecturally unique example of brutalist ornamentation, but also provides a novel material presence which necessitates a tactile interaction, as illustrated by its frequent role as a makeshift climbing wall for young, inquisitive hands. 

Andersonstown Leisure Centre, 1979. Andersonstown Leisure Centre, 1979.

Andersonstown Leisure Centre, 1979 – anarchic form. Andersonstown Leisure Centre, 1979 – anarchic form.

Andersonstown Leisure Centre, 1979 - facade detail. Andersonstown Leisure Centre, 1979 – facade detail.

‘Leisure Centres should be “fun”… They should be colourful, exciting buildings which stand out from their environment and cannot be missed…’

Leisure Centre Provision in the Eighties, Royal Society of Ulster Architects, 1980.

While it may not immediately – or, at all – evoke feelings of recreation and fun, the leisure centre at Andersonstown manages to establish an evocative civic identity and serves to exemplify the symbolic nature of buildings. Despite its curious – and often cited as ‘ugly’ – physical form, the building has succeeded through its public interaction in establishing a heavy-set monument to leisure for the community it serves.

In the decades since the first wave of leisure centres were constructed in Northern Ireland, the typological model has shifted and a number of varied instances of leisure centre design have continued to materialise. While a large number of these buildings continued to uphold the defensive, functionalist aesthetic, it was the exemplar construction of the Falls Road Leisure Centre in 2005 which served as the antithetical turning point, beckoning a more approachable and welcoming style of centre. Conspicuously contrary to the solidity and opaqueness of previous iterations of leisure centres in Belfast, the Falls Road Leisure Centre acts as a transparent and publicly engaging piece of civic architecture. Through its physical engagement with its street level context the building exemplifies the design considerations as advocated almost thirty years previous in the RSUA’s report on leisure centre designs.

Fall Road Leisure Centre, 2005. Fall Road Leisure Centre, 2005.

‘… The night time appearance of leisure centres is of critical importance. The majority of community use is likely to take place on mid-week evenings and stark windowless boxes will never appear exciting in the dark.’

Leisure Centre Provision in the Eighties, Royal Society of Ulster Architects, 1980.

The evolution of leisure centres in Belfast over the last four decades demonstrates the complex and contradictory notion that the development of an architectural ‘type’ is both free from considerations of formal architectural language, yet bound by symbolism, semiotics and aesthetics. While all of the above examples offer very differing aesthetic representations of the same architectural typology, all examples are still recognised, and used, definitively as leisure centres. Architectural trends and styles may vary, but the notional concept of ‘type’ within architecture is not so easily malleable.

At the time of writing, Belfast City Council is currently involved in formulating a large scale regeneration of several local leisure centres – including Andersonstown.

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