Ireland has just splashed out on an extraordinary national swimming complex. Extraordinary partly because no public money will be spent on running it – which meant the designers had to create a unique building that could pay its own way.
Peel off to the left of the entrance to Ireland's new national swimming complex and you find yourself in a large rectangular hall. High above, daylight shines through a series of steel arches. Before you stretches an Olympic-sized 50 m pool with a second pool for diving beyond it and tiers of seating at gallery level on either side. It is clean, lean and efficient – a sports enthusiast's dream.

Walk to the right of the central foyer, towards the leisure pool, and you are confronted by giant snakes of blue plastic writhing up to the clear-glazed roof of a drum-shaped enclosure. It is mad, chaotic, brilliant: a child's paradise of watery fun.

The sports and leisure pools are each given distinct expression in Ireland's National Aquatic Centre, found in Abbotstown on the north-west fringe of Dublin. And well they might, as fun and sport are strategically interdependent here. Like the Ponds Forge complex in Sheffield, completed for the World Student Games in 1991, this leisure facility – due to open on 10 March – is both bait to lure punters into healthy sports activities and a moneyspinner to subsidise the championship facility.

However, Dublin's complex upstages Ponds Forge in that the fun and games are intended to fully pay for the serious training and competing pools. In a new twist to PPPs, the contract to design, build and operate the complex over 30 years without public subsidy was awarded to a consortium with Dublin Waterworld as operator, Ascon Rohcon (part of the HBG group) as contractor and a British design team led by S&P Architects. The project had originally been conceived as a bells-and-whistles design, build, operate and finance package complete with retail element. But the public client, Campus and Stadium Ireland Developments, stepped back in and paid off £41m capital costs of development after the shops idea was scuppered by a new out-of-town mall nearby.

This subsidy-free operating formula has made a big impact on the building form. Drawing lessons from the Holmbush Olympic pool complex in Sydney, the moneyspinning possibilities have been played for all they are worth. The leisure drum is crammed to bursting with the Masterblaster, the Water Roller Coaster, the Surfrider and the Waverider, all patents of the New Brunswick General Stores and all as frenetically intertwined as if the Royal Albert Hall had been force-fed Blackpool's Big Dipper. There is hardly room for the Florida beachscape with palm trees and recliners. Indeed, the few puny palm trees allowed in are artificial.

Over in the championship pool hall, which is Ireland's first built to FINA international standards, the scene is more composed. Flexibility here is provided by widening the two pools beyond the eight lanes of Ponds Forge and the Manchester Millennium Pool, to 10 lanes – or 25 m. If the two outer lanes are left empty to absorb splashback, the 10-lane width creates "fast water" that boosts swimmers' performances. The 50 m long pool can also be divided up widthwise by raising a series of state-of-the-art submersible booms to the water surface, allowing the simultaneous staging of as many as four 25 m championship swimming events, occupying a total of 26 lanes running across the pool (see picture). And the diving pool comes with an increased depth of 5 m so that it can double as a sub-aqua training pool. In addition, during championship events, the spectators can reach their seating at gallery level from the roof deck of the central link block without disrupting the operation of the leisure drum on the other side.

The commercial operating formula also finds architectural expression in the building complex, which resembles a cross between a sports centre and a shopping mall. The building's forms are as confident as a keep-fit enthusiast swaggering into the bar after pumping iron. The giant rectangular shed containing the sports pools and the stepped drum of the leisure centre are boldly expressed, with strongly projecting cornice lines on the former and a raised coronet on the latter. Large expanses of cedar boarding and clear-glazed curtain walling are on display, and there is a free-standing gabion wall, made up of flat slabs of Irish limestone, that bisects the complex.

Scott Wallace, director of architect S&P's Dublin office, identifies the design challenge as "combining the formality of serious competition and training with the fun and excitement of leisure water within one building and making it look visually cohesive". The architect's solution was to play up the mix of forms and materials. The problem is that, as with the sorcerer's apprentice, the change of materials, shapes and unexpected views have led the designers a merry dance, egged on by a cut-price design-and-build contract that slashed design features and specification.

Circular forms are difficult to control at the best of times, and here they swirl away drunkenly, crashing into the more sober, straighter building forms. The architect not only set up the leisure pool drum and packed it with a few irregular-shaped fitness suites and a cafe, but also induced a couple of glazed cones to pop up like minor volcanoes from the link block. The original design shows one of these diaphanous glazed cones serving as a self-contained entrance foyer. But in the completed scheme, the ground floor of the cone, where visitors arrive, has been cut off by the heavy, plastered structure of the link block. The effect is that the visitor's attention is grabbed by two wide indeterminate spaces that spread out from the foyer to the exclusion of the narrow glazed cone overhead. Then there is the jumble of materials that tumble over each other with little consistency of detailing – not just cedar boarding, limestone gabions and clear glazing, but also precast concrete and two types of metallic cladding. Internally, exposed plastic rainwater pipes intermingle with tubular steel roof beams, and cheap materials such as profiled metal linings and rough render butt up without so much as a cover strip.

Yet, when set against the real achievements of the swimming complex, such criticism of detail pales into architectural quibbling. The greatest of these achievements is the extraordinarily high level of daylighting. In the leisure drum, the clear-glazed window wall and a clear ETFE-foil roof nearly vanish from sight, giving swimmers the impression that they are cavorting in the open air. And in the championship hall, generous skylights above the nine arched trusses give a higher than normal level of daylighting. Yet the high angle of light leaves almost no glare on the water – important for being able to see a swimmer in trouble.

In the championship hall, the flexible arrangement of pools and seating increases the number of events that can be staged simultaneously. So although the 2500 spectator seats amount to just one quarter of the minimum demanded by the Olympics, the Irish National Aquatic Centre has already succeeded in signing up two major international championship fixtures. In June it will host the Special Olympic World Games for children with developmental difficulties, and then in December it will be the turn of the European Short Course Championships, in which 500 swimmers will compete over 25 m lengths across the two pools.

The centre's general manager, David Warden, is in no doubt about the centre's achievements. "It is brighter and airier than Ponds Forge, and the combination of features is unique in the British Isles," he attests. "So this is going to be the best pool for a good number of years to come." He should know: his previous posts were running the pool complexes in Sheffield and Manchester.

So Ireland gets a state-of-the-art championship pool along with a fun-stuffed leisure pool with no continuing support needed from the taxpayer. Let's just hope that the feast of delights on offer is enough to entice visitors to part with the €10 entrance fee.

Bertie’s Bowl on the back burner

The newly completed National Aquatic Centre forms the first phase of Ireland’s ambitious national centre for sporting excellence. The multisport complex is best known for Bertie’s Bowl, a proposed 80,000-seat stadium that was promoted by former Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern. A masterplan by German architect Behnisch, Behnisch & Partner was adopted after an architectural competition. However, the 200 ha complex, which was expected to cost the government £233m, is “in a state of suspended animation”, according to a spokesperson for the public development company, Campus and Stadium Ireland Development. After last year’s election, the incoming government pledged to develop a world-class 65,000-seat stadium as first priority. But it withdrew previous promises of direct public funding in favour of the PFI route; last November, expressions of interest were submitted by 23 private consortiums. “There are a lot of people interested in the development, and they are looking at some quid pro quo in the form of either tax breaks or getting part of the site for development,” the spokesperson said. Another option is for the Irish Rugby Union and Football Association of Ireland to join forces and build a joint stadium at the Newlands Cross site in Dublin, perhaps with some government funding. Dublin’s other international-sized stadium, at Croke Park in the north of the city, is limited to use for Gaelic football by the Gaelic Athletics Association. But discussions are under way to allow it to be used for a limited number of international football and rugby fixtures – if the government helps fund construction of the fourth side of the stadium, bringing capacity up to 80,000.


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