Billingham Forum – Grandfather of ‘Leisure Centres’

Billingham Forum, conceived in 1960 but not completed until 1967, was dubbed “the grandfather of leisure centres” by the art historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, and “without question, the father of the British leisure centre” by Lance Wright, editor of the Architectural Review. It was designed by Elder Lester Architects.

Billingham Forum anticipated the shift that occurred in the 1970s from purely sporting to a combination of sporting and leisure facilities under one roof. It housed an ice rink, swimming pool, indoor bowls centre and sports hall, as well as a theatre. These occupied the four corners of the rectangular complex, with changing accommodation in the interstices and an entrance, two-storey courtyard and foyer. Writing in 1974 Lance Wright observed how it “sets the pattern of the modern sports/leisure centre as a self-contained, introspective building … a handsome, if overpowering piece of ‘sixties design’, with circulation “on the whole rather better than that of most subsequent schemes”.

The inclusion of the theatre alongside the sports facilities broke new ground in recreational planning and in the shift from sport to the broader notion of ‘leisure’, the Forum predated architectural thinking of the time by nearly a decade. The building’s form is derived from the functions within, expressed in a variety of bulbous elements. The most distinctive is the canopy of the ice rink roof which is hung using steel cables running the length of the roof and cross-braced to achieve a clear 73m span. In 2004, the theatre gained Grade II listed status, although the complex as a whole did not. The theatre and the rest of the complex was extensively refurbished in 2010.