A sporting chance

Ian Wilson explores the challenges which had to be overcome in the design of a new £10m sports centre at Latymer Upper School

Latymer Upper School was established in 1624 and has occupied its current site since 1890: a long narrow strip of land stretching from King St to the north to the Thames to the south. In 1950 the A4 Great West Road was constructed, bisecting the school. Linked by a private underpass, the north site became primarily for teaching while the south provided valuable open space for sport and recreation.

As the requirement for sports facilities developed, Latymer commissioned Richard Seifert (architect of the Centre Point tower on Tottenham Court Road) to design an indoor sports centre. Completed in 1980, the building served the school well and helped it establish a reputation as one of London’s finest sports schools, excelling in rowing, football, rugby, netball, cricket and swimming. The school has produced students that have gone on to achieve recognition at regional, national and international levels of competition. However, 34 years on, the building was tired and no longer fit for purpose. Meanwhile, the south site had also been developed for the prep school, utilising the existing detached Edwardian and Georgian villas on the riverside, and for the rowing club with the construction of a boathouse.

This strong sporting heritage is one of the foremost drivers in the redevelopment of the school’s sporting offer and a decision was taken to develop a modern, state-of-the-art, attractive building to encourage not only the production of world-class athletes but also the appreciation of fitness and wellbeing within the whole student body. 

Creating a landmark

The core requirements of the project were: a 25m six-lane swimming pool with a floating floor – to enable 2m deep competition for fast times and shallow water for teaching and community use; spectator seating; fitness gym; and three large multi-purpose studios, which could be suited together to produce an exam hall. In addition to this, the project required the renovation of the existing six-court sports hall to improve the appearance and performance, as well as support spaces and offices for the sports staff.

Following the appointment of FaulknerBrowns, and as the relationship with the school grew, the architects found that the requirements became much wider. For example, the image of the building was a significant consideration as it is in a very prominent position visible from the A4 – a very busy arterial route in and out of London. An opportunity to create a new visual landmark raising the profile of the school jumped out. The school also placed a high value on its relationship with the local community so FaulknerBrowns knew they had to involve them throughout the design process. 

The site challenge

The site was particularly challenging both in a physical context and a planning context. The physical constraints included the underpass which arrives on the site in the centre of the northern boundary, and the existing sports hall which had to remain in its present position. This largely dictated the location of the new building which would have to fill the available site to accommodate the brief.

The architects also faced the challenge that the underpass linking the two sites was critical for the daily function of the school and would need to remain open throughout the construction of the new building – this would be a major design constraint.

Each boundary was different: to the north was the A4 with the ensuing noise and pollution issues; to the west were garden walls to properties on Weltje Road with party wall and rights of light to resolve: to the south the existing boathouse and prep school which would be in use throughout the construction period. Added to this, access to the site for construction vehicles was only possible from the residential street to the east. Furthermore, given the proximity to the river, it was highly likely water would be encountered during the excavations.

From a planning perspective, whilst this was replacing an existing facility, the site was in a conservation area and was within the curtilage of two listed buildings, which posed further challenges. 

The design solution

What, then, was the design solution? Due to the nature of the activities that take place in sports buildings, they often comprise large cubic volumes. This means that they frequently require special consideration in terms of scale and massing so that they do not appear out of context with their surroundings, particularly in urban areas.

FaulknerBrowns came up with a design solution that links the two simple geometric volumes of the sports hall and pool block with a spine of accommodation that comprises the main horizontal and vertical circulation routes. By stacking the studio spaces on top of the pool hall the pool block manages to support a wide range of activities in a very small footprint. The creation of a large basement means that much of the building’s plant is removed from the main body of the plan, thus increasing the available space for the core functions and keeping the overall height down. This produced a very elegant and efficient building, albeit at the expense of a substantial and complex basement.

The new building footprint stretches over the access to the existing underpass which is extended into the playground. The work to the underpass, including the concrete slab over the top, was completed during a vacation period so that it could be used by pupils whilst the construction continued overhead.

Externally the expression of the building is very simple and restrained with a palette of fibre-cement and glass. The primary volumes of the sports hall and pool hall are clad in grey fibre-cement panels, modulated with different shades and sizes, with the studios expressed as a cast-glass box ‘floating’ above the perimeter wall. Utilising a mixture of clear and translucent panels, the movement within the studios will present a constantly changing appearance: a living canvas that will animate the elevation by day and night through shadow and silhouette. A single-storey block along the west elevation containing changing accommodation completes the composition and helps mitigate the scale towards the houses on Weltje Road.

The planning process was complex and prolonged and involved extensive consultation with community stakeholders. The project will be unveiled in time for the new term this September. 

Ian Wilson is a partner at FaulknerBrowns Architects, where he heads the schools team W: www.faulknerbrowns.co.uk 

www.latymer-upper.org

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