Ballyfermot's new pool complex a positive legacy of the boom


A dramatic cantilevered roof and sweeping front steps at a new pool, leisure and drop-in centre in Ballyfermot give visitors a strong feeling of arrival, writes Frank McDonald

THE CELTIC TIGER has vanished, as we all know, but some positive legacies have been left for people to enjoy during the recession when we'll have more time to relax.

Foremost among these legacies is Gilroy McMahon's great stadium at Croke Park, but the projects also include a range of arts and leisure centres throughout the country.

Of course, it will be argued that communities such as Ballyfermot should have been provided with a fine leisure centre when the area was developed in the 1950s and 1960s. All it got, however, was a standard-issue swimming pool in the 1970s, not dissimilar in style from the old Markievicz Pool in Townsend Street.

The Seán Dunne Pool (named in memory of a Labour councillor from Ballyfermot) was located on a backland site at the edge of Le Fanu Park. Tucked out of view, it couldn't be seen from the main street - and this seemed to architects McGarry Ní Éanaigh to be "sending the wrong signal for a public building".

So after first looking at a possible renovation scheme, they strongly recommended to Dublin City Council that it should be replaced with a new building that would, by its sheer presence, reinforce the public domain and be visible from the main street - as well as forming a new entrance and edge to the playing fields.

As the architects themselves say: "The scale, height and colour of the large yellow canopy and a sweeping set of steps and ramps makes a new entrance into Le Fanu Park as well as establishing a memorable event as you arrive at the key intersection on Ballyfermot's main street." In short, you simply can't miss it.

The city council was delighted with the design. As the promoter of a network of leisure centres and sports halls throughout the city - at least until budget cuts were announced in recent weeks - the council, working closely with the City of Dublin VEC, expanded the brief to include a youth centre and crèche on the site.

The leisure centre's canopy, which projects 8.5 metres from the roof, is the principal civic gesture - and it certainly cuts a dash.

The two buildings were also arranged to create a new public space in an area that badly needed it; the only pity is that one of its frontages is occupied by a makeshift, single-storey social club.

Project architect Matt McDonagh refers to the "very large-scale elements" in the leisure centre - a 25m swimming pool at ground level and a vast multi-purpose sports hall on the first floor, both double-height spaces - and the "much more intense" youth centre, a two-storey building diagonally opposite it.

The architects also had to deal with a sloping site, which effectively "buries" the ground level of the leisure centre on its Le Fanu Park elevation. Tall wire-mesh fences separate it from the park's football pitches and the effect is almost prison-like in combination with the fences around six new five-a-side pitches alongside.

Apart from a suite of community rooms, which have their own entrance beneath the canopy, access is controlled from a reception desk in the generously scaled foyer. Structurally, this is a dramatic space oversailed on one side by the concrete box of the sports hall, with no visible support other than its daring cantilever.

"The whole building has to be manageable, so all access is through the foyer, and then patrons peel off to go to the gym, sports hall, swimming pool and five-a-side outdoor pitches," Michael McGarry explains. Entry to the pool is at a nominal charge, especially for kids; the real moneyspinner is five-a-side football.

The 25m swimming pool, which has a partly moveable floor, is a bright, colourful, welcoming space with seating at one end for parents to keep an eye on younger children as they splash about. It is lit obliquely by rooflights, with translucent opaque glazing along the entrance front to guard against prying eyes.

A "changing village" (they're no longer called changing rooms, apparently) is located at the rear, beneath the well-equipped gym, and also flooded with natural light from angular windows that also protect the privacy of patrons. It even has "grooming stations" for swimmers to blow-dry their hair after using the showers.

Robustness is one of the main requirements for the design of leisure centres, given that they are used so intensively.

All radiators in the circulation areas, for example, are vertical free-standing units; if they were standard horizontal radiators, they would have been sat on. Five-a-side pitches are covered in orange Astro Turf.

Internal concrete walls are boardmarked, having been shuttered in spruce, and this gives them a rugged appearance. There are different textures and colours everywhere, adding brightness to the complex, but the architects also used their understanding of the sun to bring in as much daylight as possible to create a warm inviting place.

Externally, the leisure centre is mainly clad in fibre-cement panels, laid diagonally, while its base is in sandstone, stacked vertically to make it look less like a standard plinth. The low steel canopy running westward from the entrance is supported on thin steel columns, some of them deliberately crooked to make a contemporary point.

Across the broad expanse of car-parking is The Base, as the new youth centre is called. This was funded under the Rapid programme for disadvantaged urban areas and was specifically designed as more than a mere drop-in centre to cater for teenagers whose home life may be in disarray, providing them with a real port in the storm.

It is, in essence, a chill-out space with a funky decor (purple floor and orange coffee counter in the reception area) and a range of top-class facilities.

These include an internet café, a double-height black box performance space and a fully equipped recording studio, where teens can write, rehearse and play their own music. It also has a health suite upstairs, which will be providing a GP service as well as counselling on drugs, alcohol and sexual health.

Beside it is a really playful crèche, designed to cater for up to 52 kids, which has custom-made curving cabinets in birch ply with colourful cut-outs and an attractive south-facing outdoor play area.

"This complex of buildings ... is an important development which will enrich the civic life of Ballyfermot and the city," says Dublin City Architect Ali Grehan. "It was conceived as part of a strategy to locate a necklace of recreation and leisure centres around the city. Rathmines Leisure Centre is next and is currently under construction."

Delivered for a contract price of €18 million, the Ballyfermot leisure complex is a wonderful facility that would provoke envy among many other communities in Dublin where there is no indoor sports provision of any kind - let alone drop-in centres for young people.

And now, due to swingeing cutbacks, the chances of getting them are slim.