Luton Aquatic Centre
Scheme including a main swimming pool and multi-purpose pool, sports hall, changing facilities, cafe, and landscaping. Designed by S&P Architects.
29 March 2010
Planning reference: 10/0042/FUL
This project, on a main route into Luton, is a wonderful opportunity to give the town a prominent new civic building. The analysis and choice of site has a convincing rationale and we are encouraged by the civic ambition of the architectural approach. However, we do not support the planning application in its current form and recommend that the following issues should be addressed before the application is determined: the over-emphasis of the relationship of the building to its car park including the location of the main entrance and/or pedestrian access to it from Hitchin Road, the lack of interaction between the building and the surrounding landscape, and the level of detailed design of the facades that is needed within the application to ensure a very high quality building. In order to effectively contribute to Luton Borough Council’s goal of encouraging healthy living behaviour in the town, this building needs to encourage ordinary people, and not just dedicated sports enthusiasts, to visit by being legible and uplifting to use; we do not yet believe that the design will achieve this.
We do not doubt the technical expertise of the design team in the delivery of the internal sports facilities themselves but are disappointed by the organisation of the building layout in relation to its site. Given Luton’s ambition for this facility to encourage healthier lifestyles among its residents, the emphasis on the relationship of the Aquatic Centre to its car park is unfortunate for two important reasons.
Firstly the entrance should be more prominent from Hitchin Road, and be clearly legible for visitors travelling to the centre by foot, bike and bus; from a southerly direction the recessed south corner of the Hitchin Road elevation gives a misleading impression that it is an entrance. We recommend that the team reconsiders the position of the main entrance. Alternatively a stronger relationship between Hitchin Road and the current entrance position could be created using the design of the landscape. For example, a direct, obvious and generous civic-scale entrance route from Hitchin Road to the current entrance position could be created using the extended footprint of the petanque pistes.
Secondly the building should capitalise on its location and engage more convincingly with the surrounding landscape of Stopsley Common. The current proposal does not sit comfortably in the landscape and the interaction between the internal layout of the building and its solid facades with the common is clipped and utilitarian rather than a joyous part of the visitor experience. The building is inward looking; opportunities for views and for activities such as break out space for relaxing in the sun, play areas, the café (which opens out to the car park), to spill out into the adjacent green space have not been maximised. The failure to coordinate a relationship between the centre and the outdoor pitches and pavillion is a further missed opportunity to encourage outdoor as well as indoor activity as part of the healthy living programme. A comprehensive landscape proposal for this corner of the common that integrates the new building into the existing landscape is needed.
The proposal for a simple rectilinear building seems convincing and we see some promise in the concept of the colonnaded architectural approach, which, if developed further and well executed, could generate an elegant building. However, if handled poorly, the building could more closely resemble an out-of-town office development. The ultimate success of the architecture, and therefore civic presence of the project, will rest on the specification of high quality materials and well considered construction detailing that is consistent with the architectural concept. The specification of the quality and colour of the brickwork and pointing and the detailing of the brickwork, junctions are particularly important. The eaves detail currently appears weak and unconvincing in contrast to the solidity of the brick colonnade, and should be reconsidered. We recommend that the design of the elevations should be developed and material specifications and key construction details included in the application before it is determined.
Although we accept that analysis of the current travel patterns anticipates that most visitors will travel to the Aquatic Centre by car, a key aspiration for the project is to encourage healthy living behaviour. We therefore urge the design team and local authority to be more ambitious in ensuring that it is easy and pleasant to travel to the centre on foot and by bike. The car park should be ancillary and we suggest that in addition to reviewing the layout in response to reconsideration of the main entrance, its appearance might be softened by using an alternative, for example reinforced grass surfacing, for areas of the car park that are used less regularly, to reduce its overall prominence.
We welcome the commitment to achieve high environmental standards but believe that as part of Luton’s public building portfolio the project could be even more ambitious.
We are sceptical about the environmental impact of using large areas of glazing in certain sections of the façade, which could also cause glare. We suggest that roof lights should be considered to address this and to reduce the reliance of artificial lighting in other areas of the building. Inter-seasonal heat storage, which is not a highly complex technology, should also be reconsidered for the car park.