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Camden in hot water over pool

docomomo rails against destruction of Spence baths

Basil Spence has always fallen between two stools in terms of architectural appreciation - too identified with the mainstream Modernism of the 1950s and 1960s to be acceptable to the reactionary backlash that followed, and too un-intellectual in his approach to appeal to the Modern Movement hard-liners. Furthermore, his name, as his fame grew, came to be attached to three separate practices - his own (in his house in Canonbury), Basil Spence Glover and Ferguson (in Edinburgh, where he started), and Basil Spence Bonnington and Collins (in Fitzroy Square). The last two put out a lot of work with which he had little personal involvement and which on occasion was not very much better than the ordinary. But when a project was truly his own and suited his capabilities, the result could have a touch of grandeur that truly set it apart. This is partly true of Sussex University (recognised by its Grade I listing), was true of the contemporary Hutchesontown C flats in Glasgow (denied listing altogether and blown up five years ago), and is reflected in the fact that Coventry Cathedral - undoubtedly full of invention even if not all of it coheres - was voted in a recent public poll the most popular Modern building in Britain.

Another project sharing his qualities is the Swiss Cottage Leisure Centre (originally 'Swimming Baths') in London, of 1960 - the best period in Spence's work - currently threatened with demolition by Camden council. This is despite the fact that the council's own planning brief acknowledges that the centre 'is capable of extensive internal adaptation and refurbishment' and that 'Although 'unlisted' [it] is a distinctive local landmark building and therefore its retention and adaptation is to be encouraged'. At the heart of the issue is the fact that the leisure centre is not listed, despite the fact that the adjacent library, designed by the same architect at the same time, and sharing common services, is. This curious decision, in face of English Heritage's well-founded opinion that Swiss Cottage was the finest pool complex of its time and that it was clearly designed architecturally to complement the library, was taken by former heritage minister Tony Banks.

But the sports community (including Camden Sports Council) is in fact far from happy with the current rebuilding proposals. Because of the nature of the private finance initiative (pfi) deal being contemplated to fund the re-building, whereby a new leisure complex will be built by a developer in return for permission and land to build a substantial number of flats, the space left over for sports will be considerably reduced. The proposed main pool, for example, will be 8m shorter than the present, and there will be two pools instead of the original three. There will also be less opportunity, it is claimed, for team ball games, sacrificed in favour of the more profitable (to private operators) 'keep-fit' equipment. Demonstrations at the town hall are planned.

Architects who have seen the exhibition of what may replace the Spence baths (on at the Swiss Cottage Library until the end of the current consultation period on 23 February) may also be far from happy. The four pfi schemes tendered are sketchy or bizarre (aj 11.11.99). The existing baths are fine well-lit spaces; the plan is direct, elegant, and efficient; the elevations with their Portland stone cladding and handsome concrete louvres are noble and a fine complement to the rounded ends and vertical ribbing of the library. It is deplorable that funding for the maintenance and necessary adaptation of such a building cannot be found except by demolishing it and selling off part of its site. Support the Twentieth Century Society and docomomo-uk by writing in protest before 23 February to the Leader of Camden Council, or Frances Mangan, Assistant Director of Leisure Services, 218 Eversholt St., NW1 1BD, and in favour of spot-listing to the Minister Alan Haworth.

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