Pumping up the art rate

Until now sport and art have kept their distance. Alister Morgan visits a halfway house
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The Independent Culture
when you enter the n-16 fitness centre, the first thing to catch the eye is a notice board next to the door revealing details of local community activities and projects. To the left of the board is a small poster with the message "Get fit in 99 easy steps". Similar snappy soundbites are scattered around the walls of reception but do not prepare you for the decor of the adjoining rooms.

Paintings and sculptures, in all manner of shapes and sizes, are on display everywhere. Some sections of the centre are more akin to an art gallery than a fitness centre. In such surroundings you could almost believe that the sprinkling of individuals puffing and blowing below has been deliberately placed there, as living art, in an effort to enhance aesthetic effect. In many respects n-16 appears more Sloane Square than Stoke Newington.

Vic Charles opened the n-16 fitness centre in 1992 after a highly successful sporting career in karate. He started to compete in local championships in 1974 and had won a total of eight world titles and seven European titles by the end of his career. He represented Great Britain in international sport for 16 years and was described by the national coach as "the most outstanding competition fighter in the history of British karate". His phenomenal success as a competitor earned him the award of an MBE for "Services to Karate" on the Queen's Birthday Honours list in 1989. This was the first time that karate had been recognised and honoured in this way.

After retiring in 1990 he started coaching young people within Hackney. In 1992 he transformed a derelict public laundry in the heart of Stoke Newington into the n-16 fitness centre and the British Karate Association's Centre of Excellence. "We chose here because we thought we could build something," he explained. "When we first arrived the public laundry hadn't been used for about three or four years and the place was totally gutted. The basement was flooded and fires had been started."

n-16 now boasts excellent facilities in addition to its striking decor. A desire to produce something out of the ordinary was always at the forefront of Charles's plans: "We didn't want it to be like any other health and fitness centre so we had local artists come in and hang their work. I didn't want to do the stereotypical thing and have pictures of Arnold Schwarzenegger on the wall. I'm no artist, I'm just interested in art."

The work of Peter Howson, Richard Ellis and Paul Brown have all appeared at the centre, and the fact that many of the works exhibited are produced locally is clearly of some importance. When he talks of visiting local schools and of "putting something back" into the area, his sincerity is evident. "Why should people have to go outside of Stoke Newington to get fit?" he argues. "I'm no local hero around here but I live in the community and as far as I'm concerned the centre has changed the community. People used to be frightened to walk down this street at night and now the street is functioning, it's alive."

The increasing number of people patronising the centre would suggest that n-16 does fulfil an important role in the area. Moreover, an encouraging number of teenagers regularly attend. Out of the 110 people who take karate at n-16 around 60 per cent are 19 or under; of that percentage around 40 are girls.

The fact that the local kids are joining the centre, as an alternative to daubing it with graffiti, is good news for British sport, in addition to the local community. n-16 has already produced three members of the Karate World Championship Squad and currently dominates British Club karate.

A rare mixture of art and sport has made n-16 successful on a local and sporting level and offers a fresh example of what can be achieved. Even individuals who cared nothing for art would be well advised to visit n- 16. Anything serving as an effective distraction from physical exertion must be worthwhile.

n-16 fitness centre is at 46 Milton Grove, Stoke Newington N16 (0171- 249 0631)