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4 May 2021

From the NS archive: Extreme environment

12 February 1965: Rooms floored with water are difficult to deal with at the best of times.

In this piece from 1965, the architectural critic Reyner Banham considered the newly opened Hampstead Baths – at Swiss Cottage, north London – and the practical problems concerning the design of modern swimming pools. The baths, designed by Sir Basil Spence, Bonnington and Collins, were constructed between 1959 and 1964 and stood until 2002. Barnham noted that designing a structure that is to be filled with water heated above room temperature is difficult. He praised the architects for producing an atmosphere that did not leave spectators “uncomfortably sticky” and an acoustic environment that did not bear relation to “the kind of screaming snake-pit of echoes” in which he had learnt to swim in the Thirties. But condensation and damp abounded, not to mention the mud that covered the changing room floors. And with the designing of a new leisure centre an opportunity that comes by just once in the average architect’s career, Banham argued, “the present utterly inadequate rate of investment in social and welfare architecture gives no one a chance to accumulate any experience in the fiddling little details that make or muck such an interior”.

***

Swimming my usual inelegant but serviceable backstroke down the centre line of the largest pool in the new Hampstead Baths (otherwise, St Basil’s Baptistery), I enjoy an unrivalled view of cracked plaster, stained patches round ventilating grilles, lamps on the blink and sundry other maladies of the ceiling. Turning on my face for a sharp sprint to the rail at the end, I confront a wall surface becoming smudged with heat smears above the radiators, and a nicely designed clock whose face is disfigured by sticky trails of condensation. And when I go to the changing-rooms I find the floor awash with mud, and the staff who man the clothes-store rolling up towels to use as dams to keep out the tide of slop.

Now, I am not writing this to knock Sir Basil Spence and his partners, nor the contractors who put the place together. They designed and built a pretty good swimming-bath/gymnasium complex, which fulfils a real need (especially for schools) in northwest London, and I think most people, like me, enjoy swimming there. The big pool is a fine large space that makes a virtue of its bigness; its ramped seating confronts an almost totally blank wall opposite, which makes a sympathetic background for the diving-boards, and is a vast improvement (in terms of spectators’ visual comfort) on the staring expanse of south-facing glass opposite the spectators in the new Crystal Palace pool. The other bath currently in use in the Hampstead complex is a small one for family swimming with toddlers and learners, satisfactorily different and intimate in atmosphere. The circulation for both swimmers and spectators is clear and compact, without resort to unsociable segregation – everybody uses the same entrance and (mostly) the same corridors. The much-debated sun-breakers on the exterior are doing, successfully, their job of light control – and therefore look convincing, which the inexplicable vertical fins on the adjoining library do not.

[See also: From the NS archive: Mr Chamberlain’s fiasco]

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The fundamental difficulty with the baths (any baths) is that, for most of the English year, they contain an extreme environment. Rooms floored with water are difficult to deal with at the best of times but when that water is warmed above the normal temperature for the day and hour (which is most hours of most days, given our allegedly temperate climate) then the amount of water-vapour released calls for special treatment at all levels of the design. On the bulk problem of disposing of the damp air, Jack Bonnington (the partner in charge) and his consultants have done an effective job, and produced an atmosphere which does not leave non-swimmers feeling uncomfortably sticky. Also they seem to have tamed the acoustic environment, and neither of the pools currently in use is the kind of screaming snake-pit of echoes in which I learned to swim in the Thirties.

On the other hand, those old pool and the old Hampstead baths further up Finchley Road, never seemed to have the same problems with mud and condensation. They had condensation all right, but they didn’t have problems with it, because they didn’t have surfaces on which it would look awful. There are too many surfaces in the new baths on which runnels of damp are visibly in conflict with the designer’s intentions, and the damp is usually there, I suspect, because it never occurred to whoever specified, fo­­r instance, the clock that condensation would take place. It is not a piece of equipment whose condensing performance normally has to be checked, because the bulk of the clocks specified in any architect’s office do not have to withstand such extreme environments. Something like 95 per cent of the architects in this country have never designed a swimming-bath and never will, and the other 5 per cent are not likely to design more than one each. What it amounts to is that the present utterly inadequate rate of investment in social and welfare architecture gives no one a chance to accumulate any experience in the fiddling little details that make or muck such an interior.­­ Bennington presumably won’t repeat these mistakes, and he might be a very good man from whom to commission a swimming-pool, just because he has had problems at Hampstead.

[See also: From the NS archive: Man and his environment

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The mud is a different matter. Though the architect might be to blame for not realising that the changing-room floor would not dry by natural evaporation and therefore needed more drainage channels etc, the basic problem is a failure on the part of the staff to mop down often enough – I hear no such complaints from the ladies’ side, where mopping is frequent and vigorous. It is the same old complaint of the client expecting a building to run itself, and not even Stonehenge does that.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)