The future of the National Recreation Centre in Crystal Palace Park has recently been the subject of an extensive public consultation exercise. The Greater London Authority (GLA), the current landlords of the site are keen to see it demolished and replaced with a new facility located closer to the station. The results of the survey suggest that most local residents are in agreement, but this may be partly a reflection on the way the survey was presented - this extolled the perceived virtues of a new building and went into great detail on the faults of the existing one.
Love it or hate it, the National Recreation Centre is one of the most important sports buildings of the immediate post-war era and is a grade II* listed building, it is not something that can be demolished overnight. Only recently Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, refused to allow the demolition of the Commonwealth Institute, a Grade 1 listed building of the same period, which has lain empty for many years. The NRC is of course still heavily used.
Before we accept the National Recreation Centre's demolition we need to remember that attitudes to buildings change over time (and public consultation is not always the best guide to architectural quality) - after all it was only fifty years ago that Victorian buildings were considered to be beyond the pale. The NRC was designed and built at a time when national government was prepared to invest in good quality public architecture. It follows on from the Festival of Britain with the LCC Architects' Department starting to draw up the plans early in 1954. At this time sport was thought to be an appropriate public use for Crystal Palace Park, largely derelict after the destruction by fire of the original exhibition hall in 1936, and one that would restore its popularity. The whole complex took nearly ten years to build and was finally opened in 1964.
The building was very popular when it opened, offering a level of facilities not seen in England before. The design epitomized the enthusiasm of the 1950s, looking forward to an optimistic future when socialist ideals of equality of opportunity were still an important driver in architectural thought. The building itself sits comfortably in the landscape but its architecture is by no means modest, housing a 50 metre pool, and different ball game spaces, all under one roof. The concrete frame structure is remarkable for its architectural qualities and it has generously glazed facades. Its most notable feature is the central walkway, a space of interaction between the different sports; the swimmers just need to cross the main aisle of the building to watch a football game, and the ball teams can easily jump into the pool for a few refreshing lanes.
Unfortunately the building has not been maintained by either of its more recent owners, the GLC or Bromley Council, who have let both the structure and services deteriorate. There are monstrous fences surrounding most of the building and the grand main entrance is blocked - visitors having to sneak into the building via the poorly refurbished athletes' entrance in the basement.
The building needs cleaning, repair and refurbishment. Acceptable environmental conditions for sport have changed since the 1950s, one cannot expect a 40 year old building to provide these conditions without upgrading. There are some problems but they could be resolved if the desire was there. It is environmental vandalism to demolish such a fine building especially where there is no guarantee that its replacement would be of the same quality or even be built, dependant as it is on selling parts of the park for residential development to fund it. The danger is that local residents could end up with nothing.