In 1960, Billingham Urban District Council, began one of the most ambitious new leisure centres in Europe. The Forum was funded by the district’s new-found wealth – a product of the local petrochemical industry. It was designed by local architects Elder Lester and Partners and brought together a variety of recreational activities including an ice rink, swimming pool, sports centre, theatre, and bar all under one roof. The Forum opened in July 1967 to great enthusiasm. Weekly attendance over the first six months was between 20 000 and 30 000 people, far exceeding all expectations.
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.
The fate of Billingham Forum was uncertain for many years, with high maintenance costs and falling usage. In 2004, the theatre gained Grade II listed status and in 2010 underwent extensive refurbishment ensuring the future of the pioneering centre for the years to come.
All photographs copyright of Elder Lester McGregor