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Spa days

A pop-up spa helps a Barking car park scrub up well, finds Abigail Gliddon

Regeneration might bring houses, jobs and schools, but there’s no surer sign that gentrification has begun than when a spa moves in. So welcome to Barking, which has added to its substantial AHMM, muf and Sheppard Robson schemes with Barking Bathhouse – a temporary, pod-based structure giving locals a spa experience for just two pounds in the spirit of its Victorian baths, which closed in the 1980s.

Commissioned by Create London, whose Folly for a Flyover floating cinema won much praise last summer, the Bathhouse isn’t what you’d expect to find in a car park. And it isn’t any ordinary spa either – it’s hosting comedy nights and talks in addition to the treatments and sauna.

Create London says ‘the raw aesthetic challenges notions of luxury’. It’s true that Something &Son’s rough-sawn ply and protruding screw-ends aren’t everyone’s idea of indulgence, but it’s clean, warm and friendly and that’s enough. Plenty of other countries consider a soak and a steam an essential part of their downtime rather than a rarefied treat – why shouldn’t we? Whether it’s to gossip with neighbours, or an opportunity for silence, the luxury is in the break, not the fluffiness of the towels.

Rather than a gym, which is about endurance and pain, a spa is about indulgence and pleasure. It’s a shame we’ve replaced the sauna with the treadmill as the place to let off post-work steam. And, although the ‘relaxation garden’ does a good job at trying to convince you you’re not in a car park, escape is not the point. The design itself is based on working men’s public baths of the last century, when for many, washing at home really was a luxury.

The Bathhouse bar is full of content, flushed faces drinking virtuous – and not-so-virtuous – cocktails and showing how much more at ease people are with each other once in a dressing gown. While the cold room is little more than an ice cube and a disco light, you can’t fault the intention. The Bathhouse is soon to be dismantled but we can only hope it crops up somewhere nearby soon.

James Pallister is away

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