History in Structure

Brixton Recreation Centre

A Grade II Listed Building in Lambeth, London

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Latitude: 51.4636 / 51°27'48"N

Longitude: -0.1133 / 0°6'47"W

OS Eastings: 531160

OS Northings: 175535

OS Grid: TQ311755

Mapcode National: GBR LY.QH

Mapcode Global: VHGR5.ZGGV

Plus Code: 9C3XFV7P+CM

Entry Name: Brixton Recreation Centre

Listing Date: 28 October 2016

Grade: II

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1436440

Also known as: Brixton Rec

ID on this website: 101436440

Location: Brixton, Lambeth, London, SW9

County: London

District: Lambeth

Electoral Ward/Division: Coldharbour

Parish: Non Civil Parish

Built-Up Area: Lambeth

Traditional County: Surrey

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Greater London

Church of England Parish: Brixton St Paul with St Saviour

Church of England Diocese: Southwark

Tagged with: Architectural structure Brutalism Kursaal Spa house

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Sports and recreation centre with shops, designed in 1970 by a design team led by George Finch for Lambeth Borough Council, with Ove Arup and Partners as consultant engineers. Construction began in 1974 and was completed in 1985.


Sports and recreation centre with shops, designed in 1970 by a design team led by George Finch for Lambeth Borough Council, with Ove Arup and Partners as consultant engineers. Construction began in 1974 and was completed in 1985.

STRUCTURE and MATERIALS: a reinforced concrete frame with pre-cast and in-situ elements, with red brick cladding, exposed concrete structural elements and stairs, blue brick paviors, and a copper covered roof and copper dressings.

PLAN: the building occupies an irregular plot of 0.46ha. Its principal elevation faces S onto Brixton Station Road, with Pope’s Road to the E and Beehive Place to the W.

The main, six-level range of the recreation centre stands to the E; a circulation atrium rises towards the rear, from the basement to the roof, providing access to, and views into, the various activity areas. The pool is to the W and is linked internally via the main changing rooms at second-floor level. Between the main range and the pool are the first-floor-level walkway – the first of many planned in Brixton’s redevelopment scheme – and a pedestrian ramp. Shop units, with basement storage, line the Brixton Station Road elevation at the ground floor.

International House and an electricity substation* stand adjoining to the N; neither are of special interest.

EXTERIOR: the building consists of three principal elements: the main, E range, the central entrance concourse, and the swimming pool hall to the W. Each section has a distinct appearance, and all are linked by common materials, architectural motifs and features.

The main range of the leisure centre is monumental and of brick, the blind upper storeys of which overhang the S elevation and are supported at second floor level by five narrow stilts, their upper halves tapering upwards meeting the heavily coffered soffit. A modern light box* has been added on the left angle. A row of shops stands recessed from the stilts, and is topped with a concrete band, the balustrade to a first floor terrace. The terrace meets a dog-leg fire-escape stair at the SE corner, which has a chunky geometric concrete balustrade adjoining external walkways on the east elevation. The first-floor walkway meets a single-storey brick projection overhanging Pope’s Road and supported by a colonnade of concrete posts. There are large windows on the ground floor lighting the bowls hall, and a strip on the projection above; the elevation is otherwise blind. Windows, which vary in proportion throughout, have narrow black metal frames. A second external stair cascades from fourth to first floor, and turns onto the N elevation of the leisure centre, where it meets a second dog-leg stair rising the height of the building. The first stage of the low mansard roof rises behind the parapet, displaying the regular ribs of copper seams.

The pool, like the main range, overhangs the street, though is cantilevered and so has no interruption in front of the ground-floor shop units. The soffit of the overhang, and the wall above it on the W elevation, have plastic light boxes set at slight inclines to create a wave-like form, which is illuminated at night. On the first-floor cantilever are eight square openings with recessed full-height glazing providing views between the first-floor swimming pool and elevated railway platforms on the opposite side of the road. Ribbed copper flashing forms a band framing the tops of the windows. The W elevation, blind but for door openings, has a large, irregular projecting plane of brick at the first floor. The saw-tooth roof with north lights is visible behind the parapet, which rises towards the rear of the building, terminating in a curve. There is a concrete fire-escape stair towards the rear.

Between the main range and the pool the main entrance projects deeply onto Brixton Station Road; shop units continue on either side. Two flights of stairs rise from the E and W, parallel with the building line, and meet with a quarter turn flight rising to a first-floor level walkway. There are terraces along the south front of the building, and from the central walkway, which passes between the main range and the pool, large windows light the internal entrance concourse on the right and the former cricket nets on the left. Brick volumes link the main range and the pool at second-floor level, bridging the walkway. There is a dog-leg stair on the left, adjacent to a brick block with a pitched glazed roof, the glazing bars of which echo the ribs of the copper roofs and flashings.

INTERIOR: internally, the materials of the exterior are carried through: red brick walls, brick paviors, concrete coffered ceilings, and ribbed glazing.

Entrance, into the main range via the first floor walkway, is into a foyer area with modern fittings*, which leads to one of the principal features of the interior – the circulation atrium – which rises through six floors from the basement. Galleries and stairs surround the wide void and move in and out at each level; they have low brick balustrades topped with wide steel handrails, and there are troughs, now painted green, intended for planting. An escalator links the first and second floors, envisaged to be the most-trodden route. The atrium is lit from above by a pyramidal lantern supported on metal trusses. The atrium is the principal method of circulation, providing opportunities for spectating and access to all floors and most activity areas, and encouraging interaction between users. It has a climbing wall built into the south side of the fourth and fifth floors, and is open down to the double-height bowls hall in the basement. The bowls hall is studded with the posts of the structural frame, which form six lanes. Offices, toilets and changing rooms, a café, and lockers surround the green. The main changing rooms stand between the main range and the pool on the second floor; their fittings* are not included in the listing.

The interiors of the individual activity areas* within the main range are not of special interest, hence the listing extends to all open areas surrounding the atrium, including the foyer and bowls hall, and the glazed top-floor gallery.

A ramped pedestrian entrance passage leads from Brixton Station Road to the first-floor walkway. The passage has windows providing a view through the bowls hall. The first-floor entrance concourse passes from the front steps on Brixton Station Road, giving access to the main range of the sports centre, and with routes to the N and W intended to link up with the wider elevated walkway system planned for Brixton.

The double-height pool hall, at first floor-level, has three pools: a main pool, a shallower adjoining pool, and a learner’s pool, separated from the main pool by a glazed screen. The saw-tooth roof is fully expressed, and it, and the upper walls of the hall, are clad in timber match-boarding. Galleries on either side of the hall provide spectator areas, and there is a sun deck on the E, enclosed within a pitched roof with a fully-glazed S side. Walls and other areas are brick, tile or brick paviors. There is a glazed bridge above the division between the shallow pool and the learner’s pool. It is tiered and originally contained a restaurant, and is now a gym. Its terraced soffit has deep cross beams, painted white.

The shop interiors* and the storage and service areas* beneath the swimming pool hall are excluded from the listing.

* Pursuant to s.1 (5A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 (‘the Act’) it is declared that these aforementioned features are not of special architectural or historic interest. The interiors of the activity areas in the main range, where not forming part of the open space around the atrium, are excluded from the listing. The shop unit interiors and service and storage areas beneath the swimming pool are also excluded from the listing, likewise International House and the electricity substation.


The GLC published the Greater London Plan in 1969, which proposed a new motorway, Ringway 1, through inner London. Brixton was to become a major traffic hub, as the point at which the new road would link with the A23 to Brighton. A strategic redevelopment plan for Brixton was devised by Ted Hollamby, at that stage the Director of Development Services for the Borough of Lambeth, who conceived a new town centre with raised walkways linking shops, offices and houses to a central hub, a recreation centre, for the area’s fast-growing population. The centre was first phase to be implemented, and its design was led by Hollamby’s most trusted assistant, George Finch, of the Lambeth Borough Council Architects’ Department.

Finch, a specialist in public housing, had no experience in designing and building leisure centres, and so a year was spent on research. Carole Crane, a member of the design team, recalls teams of two visiting numerous sports halls and sports centres, mostly based in the new universities. The architects tested a multitude of facilities in order to assess the qualities of activity spaces, whether or not they would be suitable for Brixton, and if they could be incorporated into the design of the centre.

The recreation centre was billed to be the most sophisticated in the country, being one of the earliest designed to combine sports and leisure facilities with urban amenities, with architectural pretension, robust detailing and an ingenuity of planning not found in other examples of comparable date. Built over six levels, it incorporated two linked swimming pools and a learner pool, a main sports hall, a large bowls halls, eight squash courts, gymnasium and facilities for other activities including judo, shooting and cricket. It also had a restaurant, a bar, two cafes, a disco, and a three-bedroom caretaker’s flat, as well as changing rooms, offices and a substation. Shops lined the Brixton Station Road elevation, and a twelve-storey office block, International House, rises from the NE corner of the site (not of special interest). The building materials reference those traditionally used in the area: red brick, copper cover roofs, and stone dressings interpreted in concrete. In anticipation of the implementation of elevated town centre walkways throughout Brixton, the first of these passed through the middle of the building, and would have linked up on the N and W sides. One such walkway, demolished in 2011, led from the first floor of the SE corner of the recreation centre to a multi-storey car park across Pope’s Road.

Finch’s intention was for interior spaces to be as interconnected and un-forbidding as possible, so that all visitors to the building experience the bustle and activity, whether taking part in sports or not. A full-height atrium rises through the core of the building, with galleries leading to facilities and spectator areas. A climbing wall rises up one side of the atrium, allowing spectators to rise in altitude with the climber, but from the safety of the solid ground.

The Architects’ Journal reported in 1971 that the development of the site would be undertaken by Limmer Holdings, the company that was working on the Victoria Line extension to Brixton. The predicted cost was £2.76m. Limmer Holdings was bought up first by Fitzpatrick and Sons, and then by Tarmac Ltd, with whom Lambeth negotiated a deal in which Tarmac would build the office block for use as their own headquarters, subsidising the cost to Lambeth for building the rest of the complex. Construction began in 1974, by which time Finch had left Lambeth. The oil crisis and a series of labour and cash-flow problems created setbacks, though the office block was completed to schedule and promptly sold. Such were the delays to the recreation centre that Lambeth took control of the construction in 1979. By 1981 the costs had risen to over £10m, and the options of abandoning or mothballing the project were considered, though further funding was rallied. The GLC acquired the building in 1984 before its completion in 1985, nine years behind schedule and many times over budget; in 1986, with the disbanding of the GLC, the building was transferred back to Lambeth Borough Council. During the delays in construction changes were made to sports and building standards, meaning elements of the design had to be changed. The swimming pool, only the second in the country to be built at first-floor level, had to be lengthened by 30.5cm to meet international standards, and access passages for maintenance staff had to be modified to meet health and safety standards.

George Finch (1930-2013) was born in Tottenham, London, the son of a milkman. He began his architectural training at the North London Polytechnic (now London Metropolitan University), though found it disappointing. In reaction to his tutors’ warnings about the ‘wayward and impractical’ Architectural Association, he visited, and felt its ‘radical warm ambience’ (RibaJ, 2013) suited his utopian socialist principles. From there he secured its single London County Council (LCC) scholarship in 1950, and went on to work for the LCC housing division, another progressive institution. Finch joined the newly created Lambeth Borough Council Architects’ Department in 1963; his most notable housing schemes include Lambeth Towers and the Cotton Gardens estate. Finch left Lambeth when the Brixton Recreation Centre received planning and financial approval and, a keen thespian and set designer, he formed a partnership with the theatre architect Roderick Ham. From 1973 until 1978 Finch was head of design in the school of architecture at Thames Polytechnic (now Greenwich University), and then worked with Bob Giles as Architects Workshop in Docklands. Finch later moved to Hampshire, working as a consultant for the county council before establishing a practice with his partner Kate Macintosh. In 2005 their adventure playground in Southampton won an RIBA award.

On 12th July 1996 Nelson Mandela, on a detour from the official calling points on a first state visit to Britain, visited Brixton. Accompanied by Prince Charles, the recreation centre, known locally as the Rec, was the venue at which he met his thousands of supporters. Mandela chose Brixton for its place at the heart of black British culture, and the neighbourhood most closely identified with black Britons and the struggle for equality. Brixton had been scarred by its own history of racial violence, notorious for the riots of the 1980s, and was central to Britain’s own anti-apartheid movement. Mandela was hailed as a hero, even a godhead; around 10,000 people lined the streets to see him, and his car upon leaving was followed by a stream of devotees leaving a trail of shoes in their wake. His visit was in recognition of injustices suffered by the local community, and symbolised his allegiance with the struggle for racial equality in Britain, epitomised in Brixton. The memory of Mandela’s visit continues to resonate today, and is marked with a plaque in the leisure centre lobby.

The recreation centre is little altered. As tastes in sports and activities and use of the building have changed, so the facilities have been adapted. The café overlooking the pool is now a gym, the cricket nets have become a five-a-side pitch, and two squash courts given over to a soft play area. There was originally a pub, for the less vigorous, reached from the SE terrace. That terrace, until 2011 was linked by a footbridge to a multi-storey car park to the east, now demolished.

Reasons for Listing

The Brixton Recreation Centre, designed in 1970 by a team led by George Finch, constructed 1974-1985, is listed at Grade II, for the following principal reasons:

* Architectural interest: thoughtfully composed and proportioned, with monolithic brick masses bought to a human scale at street level, and with sculptural concrete forms;
* Interiors: the atrium and pool hall are dynamic, dramatic and sculptural spaces which optimise natural light, encourage interactivity, and have good-quality materials and thoughtful detailing throughout;
* Planning interest: one of the earliest leisure centres to combine an extensive range of activity areas with leisure facilities intricately planned around a dynamic, top-lit circulation space, with long views through the building, and incorporating various ancillary facilities which root the building in the urban fabric;
* Specialist facilities: it has three separate pools dedicated to different kinds of swimmers, an unusual glazed sunbathing deck, and a climbing wall rising through the atrium;
* Historic interest: the first phase and central hub of Hollamby’s ambitious replanning of Brixton, incorporating the first of his elevated pedestrian walkways;
* Architect: one of George Finch’s most important buildings and illustrating his socialist principles: his extensive research enabled him to provide well-designed individual activity areas within a very cleverly-planned whole, maximising the space to include the greatest number of facilities for the public, and encouraging interaction between users;
* Cultural importance: since opening, the recreation centre has become a social centre for the community, much-valued in the locality and the site chosen by Nelson Mandela as part of his historic state visit in 1996 in the area most synonymous with post-war black British culture;
* Group value: with Platforms Piece, which stands on the railway station platforms facing into the swimming pool, and which also reflects Brixton’s cultural identity.

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