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BETTER LATE THAN NEVER

AGENDA

For the first time in four years, the architect behind Bath Spa is willing to talk - exclusively to the AJ.

Grimshaw's stone-and-glass cube in the heart of historic Bath has never, on looks alone, been a controversial building.

The five-storey honeycoloured block at the centre of an ambitious scheme to reopen the city's ancient spas is almost universally liked, even by conservation groups.

The big problem is that nobody has yet been able to use it. More than three years after locals were promised a peek inside this palace of pampering, the building remains shut.

But if the spa's operator Thermae is to be believed, next month the futuristic steam pods, massage rooms and new pools will finally be unveiled.

Of course, we have been here before; it's not the first time the scheme's main backer, Bath & North East Somerset Council has announced a 'definite opening' date during the 10year history of the over-budget and overdue project.

As the cracks quite literally began to appear, the problematic £30 million project was put on indefinite hold.

Fractures also began to show in the relationship between Grimshaw and the contractor Mowlem.

As more problems came to light - such as flaking paint and leaking floors - Mowlem became increasingly vocal about its innocence, blaming design specification and offering to take over the project.

The press bayed for blood, as Grimshaw maintained a dignified silence. Mowlem was dropped.

Only now has Grimshaw decided to speak about its experiences at Bath. What is clear is that the practice, a firm better known for its hi-tech designs such as the Eden Project, is immensely proud of its contextual response to the Georgian surroundings.

'Obviously mistakes have been made, ' admits Grimshaw director Mark Middleton, who worked on the original competition-winning scheme back in 1996.

'But there have been no design changes. The building we wanted has been built.'

He adds: 'If we had made significant errors there would be a pitched roof on it.'

Middleton knows that people will want answers to why the project has taken so long but, diplomatically, he is not willing to blame anyone.

He does say that despite feuds and insinuations Grimshaw has never been threatened with any legal action.

What's more, he maintains the practice has been paid monthly throughout.

'The thing to remember here is that the scheme has been around for 10 years, and while the project managers and clients have changed, we are still there at the very end, along with Arup and [the scheme's conservation architects] Donald Insall.'

'That fact speaks for itself.'

Understandably for an architect who has seen so much written about the building even before anybody has had a chance to plunge into the subterranean pool, Middleton is not impressed with the press attention surrounding the spa.

He believes this has blinded people to the quality of the scheme, which is expected to make £20 million from tourists.

He says: 'Now the journalistic feeding frenzy for a story has stopped, people will start looking at the building and giving it the time it deserves.

'There was a lot of pressure on the council from the press who repeatedly asked when it would open. In my view the council shouldn't have answered until they were ready, ' he adds.

Middleton has hit the nail bang on the head. After all the sneak previews and tantalising 'opening' dates, the press were as frustrated as anybody at not getting inside.

The stories will soon dry up, once the journalists get to have a dip in the rooftop spa.

Providing, that is, that there are no more leaks.

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