The National Sports Centre (NSC) at Crystal Palace emerged from the same school of municipal modernism as the Royal Festival Hall and National Film Theatre on the South Bank, and from a time when social and political progress, though not taken for granted, was at least widely believed to be possible.
The NSC was conceived by Gerald Barry, in the aftermath of his stint as Director General of the 1951 Festival of Britain. He was invited to come up with ideas for the largely derelict Crystal Palace site, and responded by pointing out that Britain, a sports-mad nation, had no centre, no physical place, dedicated to sporting excellence. Crystal Palace, he said, could be that place. It had its own sporting traditions – it had hosted FA Cup finals before the First World War, and motor racing more recently – and it offered space and a dramatic hillside setting.
The London County Council (LCC) owned the site, and took up Barry’s proposal. Its own Architects Department was a powerhouse of post-war modernism, which at its best combined functionalism, a commitment to new materials and solutions, and a social-democratic ethos of meeting practical, popular needs. It was led at the time by Leslie Martin, who before joining the LCC had designed the Royal Festival Hall, still today a fantastic building,
the closest we get in London to a People’s Palace. While at the LCC he put together the overall plan for the South Bank complex, including the National Film Theatre and National Theatre;
and subsequently he designed the Museum of London and the London Wall elevated walkway connecting with the Barbican estate.
For the NSC, Martin and his colleague Norman Engleback conceived a unity of three parts: a Sports Hall containing an Olympic swimming pool plus room for indoor sports; a stadium and athletics track; and a hostel and houses for athletes and staff. These three elements would be drawn together by a bridge-walkway taking advantage of the hillside setting, running down from the hostel to provide access to the hall and a vantage point over the stadium. The first plans were produced in 1954, building started in the late ’50s, and the NSC was opened by the Duke of Edinburgh on 13th July 1964.
The Builder, in a feature article that same month, lauded the 11-storey hostel, the 12,000-seater stadium carved out of the hillside, and the Sports Hall’s undulating roof. But it was almost apologetic about the Sports Hall interior with its ubiquitous concrete, seeking to defend it as a purely pragmatic measure “around the public areas where the maintenance of paintwork might be a problem”.
This undersells a stunning design. There’s no doubt in my mind that the architects – first Martin, then his successor Hubert Bennett – used concrete because they loved concrete. Concrete is often associated nowadays with Brutalism, and Brutalism has a certain dark charm, but the Crystal Palace Sports Hall is far from Brutalist. Instead, this is concrete as elegance, concrete springing aloft in the service of light and space.
More than 50 years have passed since the Sports Hall was opened, and 20 since it won a Grade II* listing, but to my mind it is still beautiful, still doggedly optimistic in these mean-minded, shameful, Brexit-hugging times.
Around 2004/2005 the site was in the news when the Twentieth Century Society revealed that Bromley Council was considering demolishing it. This would of course have been illegal; its Grade II* listing placed a duty on the Council to maintain it in good condition. The immediate threat was lifted by London’s success in winning the bid for the 2012 Olympics, and since then the NSC has been associated with various pipe-dreams such as Crystal Palace Football Club’s flirtation with a possible return to its first home, or the appalling proposal from China’s Zhang Rong Group to build a retail and entertainment opportunity masquerading as a facsimile of the original Crystal Palace.
For now, the NSC is run by Greenwich Leisure Ltd., a charitable social enterprise, as a public sports facility. In other words, for now, it’s doing what it was always meant to do.