In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The Lost World of the British Leisure Centre
  • Otto Saumarez Smith (bio)

Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 1.

Perspective of Sunderland Crowtree Centre, opened 1977. RIBApix: Royal Institute of British Architects.

Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 2.

Billingham Forum, opened 1962. RIBApix: Royal Institute of British Architects.

[End Page 180]

This article presents a brief history of the early years of the British leisure centre. To many people in Britain the idea of a leisure centre will be immediately and intensely evocative, associated perhaps with the smell of chlorine and the risk of verrucas. Non-British readers may not quite understand what the term connotes. To put it briefly: leisure centres are municipally funded, environmentally controlled buildings, with a free-form pool alongside other entertainments such as flumes (water chutes), sauna, caféand so on. The subject is at first sight banal, even frivolous. This article is inspired by some recent writings by Joe Moran, who has uncovered a poetically charged 'hidden history' in such seemingly everyday environments as motorway service stations.1

A 1976 article on the phenomenon in the Architects' Journal commented on the recent boom:

Throughout the 1970s there has been a phenomenal growth in the design and construction of sports and leisure centres. The pace has been frantic, as if every local authority now feels the new facility to be something which it cannot exist without, and like the pocket calculator, it seems essential to modern everyday life. How did we manage without, a generation ago? Some sports buildings, which cut across traditional barriers of class and privilege, have taken on a social significance which had previously been associated with the parish church or local hall. They have become an object of community identity.2

Architecturally, leisure centres provided sealed environments, heated to around twenty-nine degrees centigrade throughout the year, with 'fun pools' designed not primarily for exercise, but for relaxation. Rather than a rectangular pool for doing laps competitively, leisure pools aimed to encourage a 'holiday atmosphere', with 'gentle changes in depth and curved indentations, punctuated by tropical planting'.3 They were unashamedly populist and lowbrow in mood: 'Pop imagery of fun and sun is seen as central to a successful holiday leisure centre, belying the municipal parentage.'4

The leisure centres built from the late nineteen-sixties and through the seventies are an almost completely unexamined building type in the British [End Page 181] urban and suburban landscape, although their novelty was recognized and stressed at the time.5 They are nevertheless a highly suggestive historical source, expressing widespread aspirations for Britain as an affluent social democratic society in an age of economic and social change and offering a novel viewpoint on society and the state in the 1970s. This article is a response to Lawrence Black and Hugh Pemberton's call for alternative readings of the 1970s, showing how a sense of crisis during the period was conducive to new ideas and approaches.6 It aims to historicize the phenomenon and suggests that these buildings are eloquent about a moment in British history. The leisure centre shifted the focus of the state's provision of amenities away from the traditional concern with hygiene and fitness, towards more nebulous concepts of happiness, free time, and even fun and glamour. In a small way this shift suggests that this was not a period of sclerosis for social democracy, but one in which municipal government was actually expanding its purview. Such an argument parallels the recent work of Guy Ortolano, who has used a study of the New Town of Milton Keynes to make an important argument about the continuing dynamism of social democracy in the 1970s.7

Leisure centres were an attempt by the social democratic state to assimilate to affluence. Although local authorities would be their primary funders the centres were profoundly informed by ideas emerging from private enterprise, especially through the conduit of a small number of enterprising architectural firms. The resulting buildings belonged to a long tradition of the municipal provision of facilities to improve health and well-being, but their architects also imported into the public sector many features and ideas that had been...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 180-203
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.