Tim Ronalds’ extensive overhaul of Ironmonger Row Baths represents a bold plunge into the world of pool design
The socially progressive policies pursued by the London borough of Finsbury in the decade prior to the second world war would prove one of the most valuable templates for the development of the welfare state. Tecton’s Finsbury Health Centre remains the building most synonymous with that pioneering work, but by the time it opened in 1938 the Labour-led council had already established a track record as an architectural patron.
Seven years previously, it had completed work on Ironmonger Row Baths, providing local residents with 82 rentable slipper baths at a time when only 4% of the borough’s 12,000 houses had bathing facilities of their own. And yet, while the baths may have been a product of the same reforming mission as Tecton’s building, their architectural expression could hardly have been less alike. Ironmonger Row was the work of Alfred Cross, a bathhouse specialist who built 10 such facilities in London alone.
In his 1906 book, Public Baths and Wash-houses: a Treatise on their Planning, Design, Arrangement and Fitting, Cross set out his ideal model: a two or three-storey brick and stone structure that would screen “the obnoxious business” — ie the washing of bodies and clothes — housed inside. When he later came to design Ironmonger Row, there was little to suggest that his revulsion had abated; concealed in the guise of an Italian palazzo, the building studiously avoids advertising the unseemly goings-on within.
In 1938, Cross’s son, Kenneth, doubled the building’s size with the addition of two swimming pools and Turkish baths to its rear — a design whose external expression owed more to Wren than to his father’s models, and whose spare interior betrays the tighter budget that he had at his disposal. The improvements in domestic sanitation in the post-war years led to the slipper baths’ closure in the seventies but the pools, Turkish baths and laundry facilities continued to play a central role in the life of the local community.
A modest refurbishment in the eighties allowed the facility to operate for another 20 years, but by 2009 the London borough of Islington — into which Finsbury had been merged in 1965 — finally conceded the need for a more substantial overhaul if the grade II listed building was to remain in public use. Despite having no previous experience in the calamity-prone field of pool design, the locally based Tim Ronalds Architects was appointed following a competition.
Against the backdrop of local authority cuts, it was touch and go as to whether the project would proceed — the alternative scenario being that the building would be sold off to a private leisure firm. The £16.5 million scheme was in fact cancelled at one point, but — for reasons perhaps not entirely unrelated to the small electoral margin enjoyed by the Liberal Democrats in advance of the 2010 local elections — that decision was reversed two weeks later. As it happens, it didn’t stop the Lib Dems losing control of the council, but the completion of Ronalds’ exemplary project at the end of last year will hopefully offer some consolation.
Ronalds’ most radical decision has been to comprehensively reorganise the building’s circulation
Ronalds’ most radical decision has been to comprehensively reorganise the building’s circulation. Previously the main entrance stood midway down Alfred Cross’s primary, east-facing elevation, requiring would-be swimmers to make a long and circuitous journey to reach the pools. Along the way they crossed a north-south band of lightwells that separated the two phases of development and brought light into the depth of the expansive plan.
Ronalds’ scheme has cleared out this strip and introduced in its place a lobby served by a new primary entrance on the south frontage. The change not only allows much easier access to the facilities distributed to either side of the lobby, but also reorients the building towards St Luke’s Gardens, the green space that takes its name from Hawksmoor’s magnificent church, which commands its south side.
The Gardens’ other two edges are currently addressed by the rear elevations of a leisure centre, adventure playground and nursery, and it is hoped that Ronalds’ project may represent the first contribution towards a long-term project of reorienting buildings towards the space, defining it as the focus of the area’s public life.
The new entrance is set within an expanse of precast concrete panels, into which the building’s name has been inscribed in stout capitals. Based on an original illuminated sign that is appended to the building’s principal corner, the font maintains an atmosphere far removed from that of your local Virgin Active.
On entering, we are presented with the long, double-height lobby: a grandly scaled toplit space, whose civic character is consolidated through the use of a terrazzo floor and dado. A low strip window to our left reveals the larger of the two pools, while above it the underside of the raked viewing gallery rises dramatically in steps towards the spine of skylights.
The 30m barrel-vaulted main pool and adjacent training pool are presented in a form ostensibly little changed, but in fact, have both been significantly adjusted. The main pool’s tank has been retained but the water now rises to deck-level, a change that reduces the force of waves and, by setting eye-level 300mm higher, provides a more enjoyable swimming experience.
The smaller pool has been rebuilt entirely and fitted with a movable floor to facilitate swimming classes. It is separated from the main hall by glass, which serves a valuable acoustic function when, as during my visit, an aquarobics class is being loudly soundtracked by Michael Jackson’s Beat It. Blinds have been provided too — an important consideration given the pool’s use by groups of Muslim women.
A stair at the end of the lobby takes us up to a suite of gyms and training spaces that have been established where the slipper baths stood previously. Just one bath has been retained as an aid for school groups, its large and noisily efficient brass tap newly fixed up by Tim Ronalds’ classic-motorcycle-repairing brother. Cross’s plan distributed the slipper baths around the building’s perimeter, its centre being occupied by a stair-core and a substantial lightwell, which Ronalds sought permission to fill in. However, English Heritage would only allow the introduction of a new lift within the void, with the result that — particularly in the gym that fills the top floor — the plan is more congested than one would wish.
The hot rooms, plunge pool and slabs have been retained in their original locations
Handsomely detailed as they are, these are essentially generic spaces. But in expanding and refurbishing the below-ground Turkish baths to create a new luxury spa, Ronalds has found the opportunity to create a very much more richly characterised world. Key spaces of the original plan — the hot rooms, plunge pool and slabs — have been retained in their original locations, although fitted with attractive new tiled surfaces — the only fully retained interior being a timber-panelled rest area. Rather to Ronalds’ disappointment, obscured glass screens have been demanded and a no-nudity policy implemented; the sensibilities of the current generation of users, or at least of the management, would seem rather more coy than those of their forebears.
A new sauna has been provided in place of one that had an unfortunate tendency to catch fire, and further digging out has allowed the introduction of specialist treatment rooms where you can subject yourself to the delights of a Moroccan mud rasul or hydrotherapy sensory experience. With the addition of some designery loungers — not of the architect’s choosing — it all makes for a more exclusive atmosphere than one finds on the upper floors. That is reflected in the cost of entry: as a non-member, three hours’ access will put you back £25.
Beautifully realised as it is, this is the one part of the building where one senses something of the commercial pressures involved in maintaining such an ambitious public facility. The baths’ immediate vicinity may be characterised by local authority housing but a five-minute walk to the south takes us over the borough boundary and into the City of London. The new spa’s popularity with Barbican residents seems assured, but one can’t help regretting what will surely prove a significant narrowing in the demographic of its users.
Understandably spooked by the nightmare saga of Clissold Leisure Centre, Islington insisted on a design and build contract, although one based on a full set of working drawings and with Ronalds novated. It is a tribute to the contractor, Wates, that you would be hard-pressed to guess as much. In fact, much of the project’s achievement lies in what is not noticed, particularly the highly complex services that have been threaded across the fabric and the insulated linings that have brought it up to Breeam “excellent” status.
An amused Ronalds tells me that EH wrote to him asking whether he felt the building should retain its listed status given the extent of his intervention. I can’t speak for Alfred and Kenneth Cross, but as a long-time patron of Ironmonger Row I am delighted to be using their building again and hope that they would agree that it looks better than ever.
Architect Tim Ronalds Architects
Client London Borough of Islington
Structural engineer and conservation consultant Alan Baxter & Associates
Services engineer Max Fordham
Contractor Wates Construction
Access consultant David Bonnett Associates
Pool consultant Robin Wilson
Project manager Synergy
Quantity surveyor Northcroft
Pictures by Morley von Sternberg