Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Swimming in History

There was a period in British history when Queen Victoria's name was associated with just about everything: not only were parts of foreign continents named after her but also, all around Britain, streets, parks, squares, schools, fountains and institutions bore the name 'Victoria'. Every enterprise sought to bask in the reflected glory of the brand 'Monarch of Great Britain and Ireland and Empress of India' - without having to pay a penny for the publicity. Here in Manchester her name was even pressed into service to impress the great unwashed when, in 1906, the City Council opened the very splendid Victoria Baths, a grand building which contained three swimming pools, personal baths, a laundry and a Turkish steam room - built in the finest materials and decorated lavishly in the style of the day.

Victoria herself had no hand in the enterprise: it was an embodiment of civic duty at a time when the municipality was extremely rich and the majority of its inhabitants were extremely poor. But circumstances have changed since those times and Victoria Baths was closed in 1993. The population of the vicinity had long since acquired its own bathrooms and washing machines and swimming pools were to be found elsewhere. The building was locked up and public funds were redirected to other amenities. Nevertheless there was a popular movement to prevent its closure and there remains a vigorous campaign to reopen and restore it.

The supporters, however, have an intractable problem: on the face of it they just have to find a lot of money but ultimately they face the fact that Victoria Baths  has become an unnecessary facility in an altered landscape. Even if a change of use were feasible its location remains problematic. There are examples of successful rescue attempts elsewhere - in East London for example - where old buildings have been saved and recycled. But East London is a dense urban environment with a pressing need for buildings, a thriving local economy, proximity to vast wealth and a high proportion of creative inhabitants. Poor, lovely old Victoria Baths is not so fortunately situated and I fear it may be doomed for where it is, not saved for what it is. Without a population to cherish it no building can survive.

This story is far from unique: such buildings disappear with the slow inevitability of lost causes everywhere; buildings that are magnificent, beautiful or remarkable; conceived in times of need or plenty, with noble intent and generosity of spirit. Such structures are cherished by the people who realise that once they are gone they can never be replaced. It is understandable that they should fight rearguard actions.

All buildings contain the history of their conception. The purpose of Victoria Baths may have been utilitarian but its richly decorated style was typical of the time and place. By contrast a recently built municipal swimming pool is likely to be a soundly engineered facility housed in a cost-efficient but unremarkable building called a Leisure Centre situated on the edge of town and surrounded by an asphalt car park.

But one new swimming pool that bucks the trend and strives to make a grand and elegant statement is Zaha Hadid's Aquatics Centre  at London's Olympic Park. Built to impress, a tour de force of the alliance between design and technical expertise, it signifies a return to magnificence for its own sake.

I sincerely hope I may not see the day when bottle-green, art-nouveau ceramic tiles, stripped from a demolished Victoria Baths, are on sale at bric-a-brac stalls and antique markets; nor the day when the Aquatics Centre becomes just another venue for stadium-style concerts. But in a hundred years from now there may well be a "Save Our Aquatics Centre" campaign - and who could blame them?


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