Link Centre will be an important feature of West Swindon and the whole town for the foreseeable future, according to Councillor Nick Martin.
The chairman of the West Swindon Forum said at the 25th anniversary celebration day on 10 July, “clearly the building is very important to the thousands of users who visit it every year.
“If the economy was different and the borough council had income from land sales we would be looking for major reinvestment in leisure facilities in the area. But this isn’t an option and we have to find ways of sustaining Link Centre in a time of financial belt tightening.
“I think the fabric is holding up pretty well because of planned maintenance, but there is a major task ahead to make the roof more weather tight.”
• Link Centre is used annually by some 900,000 visitors
This is how we covered the 20th anniversary in the February 2005 Link magazine, below:
The Link Centre, Swindon’s most exciting commitment to sport, recreation and community life, opened twenty years ago in April and in a series of articles on the building, we look back on how it came about
Without doubt the Link Centre was ahead of its time, but then Thamesdown Council, as Swindon was then known, was in front of other local authorities in terms of recreation, arts, culture and community development.
The West Swindon District Centre had been zoned for commercial and recreation purposes in the master plan for the western development of the town which had commenced in 1974 when the first infrastructure was built.
When the shopping centre site jointly owned by the council and private developers Bradleys, was bought by Carrefour, councillors were already committed to spending the council’s share of the income on a major recreation and community facility on a large section of the district centre site.
Inspirational for putting ideas in front of councillors were the Director of Arts & Recreation Denys Hodson and Recreation Officer Graham Swatton. Stitching together the land deals across West Swindon was the council’s Project Development Officer Ken Hislop who was told bluntly at local consultation meetings in 1983 by people who had moved into West Swindon in the previous seven years that they were not happy with the proposal for a grandiose building when the promised permanent community centres were nowhere to be seen.
Community buildings were quickly added to the package of facilities to be developed. Toothill and Freshbrook community centres at their respective village centres opened in September 1984 and the converted and extended Upper Shaw Farm, to serve Westlea and Shaw, opened in March 1985.
But the big excitement was the opening of the Link Centre at the end of April 1985 with an evening at the ice rink for the people of West Swindon.
The second stage of the huge project – the library, community suite, arts/drama studios, swimming pool,snooker hall, health and fitness suite and sports hall – were opened in May and June.
The name for the leisure centre came from a competition. Ostensibly open and transparent, in fact we at the magazine were asked to submit a suggestion that the building be called Link Centre to reflect all the different features to be found there. Confusion as to who had the name first has reigned ever since.
Nigel Honer (pictured), the council’s assistant chief architect in charge of the project, said the building of the Link broke new ground in all directions.
Now principal at his Bristol based Bruges Tozer Partnership practice, he recalls that the decision to incorporate so many different uses under one roof was a huge commitment by the council. “There was a tremendous pressure to build as quickly as possible and we used a number of innovative building techniques. With inflation running at 16 to 20 per cent – unheard of today – the budget would have disappeared very quickly. Consequently we went for a very fast design and construction scheme; designing the details whilst the building was going up, which is why the Link is the shape and form it is.
“We had an international team of consultants involved in different aspects of the project, built by Bovis Construction, with the borough architects department undertaking the co-ordination and design. The roof was erected first, held up by four central pillars and supports around the perimeter so that there was dry environment to build, as well as creating very large spaces for the final use.
Nigel recalls a major problem in the very early stages of construction when a known geological artesian well under the site turned out to be a lot bigger than expected. The piles being driven into the ground for the central support just kept on going. The solution was to increase the number of piles from six to ten per column after the roof was built.
He is proud of another innovation. “Refrigerating the ice rink and warming the swimming pool demand a lot of energy so we commissioned a new kind of heat exchange system, one of the first of its kind in the world and the first time the equipment had been installed in Britain. Consequently the centre won a string of energy saving awards.”
Nigel recalls an engineer from Texas was called in when the ice rink was being built to ensure an even temperature across the ice surface, whilst the heat exchange equipment came from Japan with instructions in French.
The fire officer at the time made severe demands on the design team to create separate areas in the building, as well as a requirement to evacuate 3,000 people within three minutes. This added considerable cost, such as the fire safety glass between the mall and the sports hall. Another problem never adequately dealt with was reducing the effect of noise between different parts of the building.
The council required an open access building and for the first few years The Mall was part of the public highway through the building. But youth anti-social behaviour caused major problems, resulting in a change of designation and use of security officers to restrict entry where necessary.
The ice rink doors opened to the public just eighteen months after planning permission was given, a remarkable achievement given the architects and engineers were working on the details as building was going on, and the problems with the foundations.
Nigel is keen to point out that Link Centre owes little to Lord Norman Foster’s much publicised Renault distribution centre on Mead Way, under a mile away. “The Renault building is much smaller and full of columns which makes internal use difficult. Our task was to create large spaces in the most cost effective way. Link Centre is very flexible in that the walls do not support the roof so it is relatively straightforward to rebuild or refurbish different parts.
“I think the building looks well for its age, considering the number of people who use it, though it needs cleaning and some of the cladding could be replaced. I’m surprised by how little has changed; I’m sorry the arts suite was closed, but it reflects changing current interests. I can see why the space is now a gym and I like how the climbing area has been developed and integrated into the sports hall.”
Nigel is not impressed by the suggestion by some within Swindon Council that Link Centre should be closed to save money, or perhaps replaced on another site using private finance initiative funding. “Thamesdown Council had tremendous foresight to build such an all-encompassing building. At the time £9 million, including the community centres, was a lot, but the tax payers of Swindon got a very good deal. To replace the facilities on offer would probably cost ten times that amount.
“Link Centre has a lot of life left in it, though equipment needs to be upgraded in line with current requirements and any building should be properly maintained to avoid unnecessary deterioration. Perhaps it is because they are taken for granted, but I don’t think people realise how much Link Centre and the council’s other recreation facilities enrich the Swindon community.”
Pictured, right, queuing to get in, the first ever users of Link Centre