Three years late and more than £20m over budget, Stephen Hodder's Clissold Leisure Centre became notorious as the pool that sank Hackney. Marcus Fairs asked residents whether they felt it was money well spent
"I nearly fell over when I heard it was open," says Emma Kirkham, standing beneath the glinting canopy of the Clissold Leisure Centre. Kirkham, like thousands of other residents of Hackney in east London, has been waiting seven years to be able to go for a swim.

And now she can: the centre finally opened on 1 February, almost three years late and £20m over budget. Kirkham, a magazine designer, is impressed. "I think it's fantastic. It's lovely; big and airy. I like the concrete. I like the transparency. I like being able to see daylight when I swim. It's worth the wait.

Hackney council will hope that others agree with Kirkham's verdict – it has not had too much to celebrate lately. Years of inept management and profligate spending culminated last year in debts of £40m. In an unprecendented move, the government stepped in and took control of the borough. Jobs and services have been slashed.

Clissold Leisure Centre came to symbolise the council's incompetence – and played a large part in its downfall. Councillors set out to build a dazzling palace of sport and instead presided over a procurement scandal that was labelled "worse than Wembley" by a source at Sport England.

To its architect, Stephen Hodder, the building's quality transcends the chaos. "I took someone around it the other day and they said to me, 'You go inside and it's like you're not in Hackney anymore'. Surely that's what the building's all about: escaping and relaxing."

Since taking over the council, the government has leaned heavily on Hackney to settle claims and open the building to the public – an event that many hope marks a turning point in the borough's fortunes. But locals and officials are left wondering: is the building any good?

Sport England, which provided more than £10m of lottery funds, has ordered an inquiry. "We'll send in a team of monitors and find out how it performs on all levels," says Richard Fishlock, senior development manager at the organisation.

They could start by asking 11-year-old Holly, enjoying a drink in the cafe with her family after a swimming session. "It's a nice design and I like the look of it. But the pool's not as nice as other ones I've been to," she says. "In the big pool it's a bit cramped because of the lanes." "The pool we like is the one in Bath," adds her brother Jack, who is seven. "There's all sorts of slides there."

I took someone around it and they said to me, ‘You go inside and it’s like you’re not in Hackney’

Stephen Hodder, architect

Holly and Jack have put their fingers on something: Clissold, in terms of its architecture and its facilities, is a serious place. The only concession to fun is a joyless flume that looks out of place in its industrial modernist surroundings.

Hodder himself memorably described the flume as "a necessary evil" that mucked up his otherwise pure volumes. In his defence, Hackney and Sport England did not want frivolities. Themed leisure pools, with their plastic palms and wave machines, are yesterday's thing. Now the emphasis is on fitness and excellence rather than larking about. A policy shift inspired, no doubt, by Britain's performances at recent sporting events.

The business end of the centre is its two 25 m pools – one for lane-swimming and the other for splashing – on opposite sides of the building and separated by a long corridor. This arrangement irritates many users, including Holly and Jack's father, Hugh. "The layout doesn't work if you have children of different ages using different pools," he says. "You can't supervise them."

Again, this is not Hodder's fault, but rather a response to the needs of one of the many minority groups in this patchwork borough. The second pool is designed to be used at certain times by Orthodox Jewish women, whose religion dictates that they may not be seen when bathing. Whereas the main pool basks in natural light flooding through the triple-height glass walls, the second is screened by frosted glass.

A Muslim building surveyor, arriving for a game of squash, suggests that not every religious sensitivity has been addressed. "There have been complaints from women – the main pool is too open with all that glass," said the man, who did not wish to be named. "People can look in and see them swimming."

His squash partner, the finance director at a housing association, has a more mundane criticism of the soaring lobby: "It's nice the way it looks, but this area is a waste of space. They could have got more squash courts in."

Other users are impressed by the lofty volumes. "The space is good – like Stansted Airport," says Justin Dye, an environmental consultant. "There's lots of natural light, says Clare, a PA. "It looks a bit like the Jubilee Line stations – all the concrete and glass. It's infinitely better than other centres in Hackney."

The aesthetic is Teutonic modernism – which is a tad austere for a municipal swimming pool

Lee Mallett, property developer

But in a way, the building is at the mercy of its geometry. In plan, it is like a square hot-cross bun: four triangles, one at each corner, contain the two pools, a sports hall, and the entrance foyer. Circulation and changing rooms are squeezed into the cross that separates them. "There's not nearly enough room in the male changing rooms," says Lee Mallett, a property developer. "Circulation became virtually impossible as soon as there was an exodus from the pool."

Mallett's son Gus says he found his swimming experience "rubbish"; Mallett himself offers a more mature critique. The aesthetic, he says, is "Teutonic modernism" which he thinks is "a tad austere for a municipal swimming pool".

Hodder's minimalism comes at the expense of navigational clues. Does that turnstile lead in or out of the building? Is this the women's changing room or the men's? Which side of the door should I push to open it? Leisure Connections, the private operator drafted in to take the building off Hackney's hands, has already moved to address these confusions, sullying the building's purity by plastering windows, doors and walls with a rash of posters and notices.

It makes you wonder whether modernism is the appropriate architectural language for such a building. It is fine in the evenings, when the beautifully illuminated concrete walls and metal soffits imbue a hushed reverence appropriate to the serious business of adult physical culture. But on the weekends, when the bare walls echo with the bawling of kids and the mischief of teenagers, you feel the building ought to loosen up a bit.

Overall, though, it is hard to fault the ambition of the Clissold. Hackney wanted everything: architectural kudos, sporting excellence, a boost to civic pride and regeneration. It was almost as if it wanted to recreate the regeneration effect of the Barcelona Olympics with a single building.

"At the time of the brief, Hackney was trying to capture a bit of everything," says Hodder.

It also had to build something that would serve its culturally and financially diverse constituents. On this count, it seems it has a way to go: the centre's users seem to be predominantly middle class professionals.

"It's a beautiful building; it's worth the wait," says Azizah Aziz, who works in direct marketing . "It's taken so long; I haven't been to the gym for three years because of this place. I just hope they can maintain it – but I know in my heart it will deteriorate."

The saga of Clissold Leisure Centre

Hackney’s woes are not yet over: there are still problems at the Clissold. Even while the centre is open, contractors are installing safety barriers throughout the building where there is floor-to-ceiling glass, after a last-minute order from safety inspectors. Areas including the fitness studio are still closed while this work progresses. “There’ve been quite a few teething problems, says Jo Nash, regional manager for operator Leisure Connections. “It’s unusual to have a building that’s not completed.” After being forced by the government to settle contractor Gleeson’s claims for prolongation and disruption last year, Hackney is now preparing to counterclaim against the construction team. “We haven’t settled all the claims yet,” says Ian Cooper, a leisure consultant employed by Hackney. “The council is under government direction and there is great pressure from them. It’s urgent that the project is completed ASAP.” This Friday, Hackney will present the latest cost estimates for the building. A Hackney source confirmed that the last estimate of £26.7m, produced last year, is too low. The ambitious project, initially costed at £7m, was conceived in 1995 to replace two crumbling pools on the site. Sport England were impressed by Hackney’s vision, giving £10m of lottery cash in 1997. “There is a need for it in the area, it’s a very deprived area,” says Sport England’s Richard Fishlock. But there were problems from the outset, and costs spiralled. In 1999, a district auditor’s report identified “poor project management skills” within the council and an inability “to identify and contain delays.” Other pools in the borough had to be closed to save money, leaving just one facility for Hackney’s 195,000 residents. Many of the cost overruns were blamed on the complex design – notably the spectacular trussed roof and cantilevered staircases – but Hodder rejects these charges (see below).

‘I’ve given up four years of my life’

Stephen Hodder, the architect of Clissold, spoke to Marcus Fairs about his most troubled project: After all the agony, Clissold is finally open. I still think it’s one of the best things we’ve done. Somebody said I should get Building of the Year for this, so I’m delighted. I demand high standards. Second best is not good enough in architecture. That’s just my nature; hopefully that’s what gives my buildings the quality they have. Hackney was committed to the building. The only compromise we had to make was the bottle traps to the wash-hand basins in the changing rooms. They’re white plastic instead of stainless steel. All I ever try and do is do my best for my clients. I have a reputation for doing that. But I don’t think I’m overly exacting. I can’t speak highly enough of the contractor, the team. But the building industry is difficult. You put a spade in the ground and you hit problems. This was a project that was always going to be a challenge. People look at it and say: “Hodder has been too ambitious.” But the ambition came from everybody, including Hackney and Sport England. It’s stupid to say we’re blameless – nobody is blameless. But there were problems everywhere. Problems with land transfers, with road closures. We tendered at a time when the industry was overheated, at the height of the lottery boom. It came in at tender over budget. We had to rush to get on site – Customs and Excise said we had to start on site by a particular date so Hackney could recover VAT – that turned out not to be the case. We should have taken a step back and gone back to the drawings. Clients like to think things can happen tomorrow; we can all get lulled into a false sense of security and sometimes have to tell clients what they want to hear. Everybody started on site with incomplete information. Some of the problems were born out of information that needed to be completed, for example the steelwork and the concrete. There were problems with reinforcement in the ground; we were trying to achieve [a high] quality of concrete when pouring at wrong time of year. The precast concrete plinth had to come from Belgium, and the tender package came in high. What could we do? Redesign it? There were difficulties with the co-ordination of M&E and architectural packages. We had deflection in the top of the curtain walling. We had to take down ceiling voids to put in smoke detectors. People look at the roof and say it looks complicated; that there must have been problems. But it was very, very straightforward. It was fabricated off-site and went together beautifully like a kit of parts. We had deflection – but a roof spanning 30 m is going to deflect. That’s not a problem, that’s something you deal with. Clissold is not a leisure pool; that’s a dying breed. I know it’s a serious piece of architecture, but it’s there to be enjoyed. I’ve given up four years of my life for people to enjoy that building. I’d be very disappointed to hear people weren’t enjoying it.