Niall McLaughlin was recently judged Young Architect of the Year, the British Steel-sponsored award. His talent for manipulating light, colour, vista and circulation to make the most of often restricted spaces is demonstrated in the swimming pool at the Phillimore Club, in West London.
The women-only health club, in the basement of a 1930s mansion block, was to be designed by surveyor and leisure specialist BSA. McLaughlin was brought in a few weeks before the project was due to start, he says, to provide advice on 'ambience enhancement . . . lighting, bits and pieces', but suggested he be allowed to design the pool area, leaving BSA to carry out the rest of the club. The result is a subterranean oasis which elevates what might otherwise have been yet another anaemic health-club-by numbers.
The mansion block itself is quite special.
Designed in the 1930s by the Viennese architect Michael Rosenauer, its exterior that is plain and elegant, a little reminiscent of Loos. It has a courtyard clad in reflective shrimp-pink glass, an extravagance shattered when a bomb hit nearby Holland Park during the war. This somehow also caused the water in the original basement pool to drain away. Neither were replaced, the pool was covered over and the space turned into a photographer's studio.
McLaughlin wanted to create 'a courtyard of light'. The fact that there was no natural light availab le m ight appear to have been the largest obstac le to this ambition, but, typically, provided both the challenge and the surprise of McLaughlin's work.
Having clad the heavy concrete columns at the poolside in water-resistant MDF, he placed downlighters within the cladding which have the double effect of filling the columns with light and shining light through glass panels into the water, casting reflections deep into the pool. Fluorescent lights behind sandblasted glass panels create a clerestory effect at each end of the lowered ceiling, while sky-blue fibre optics skirt it, giving an illusion of the sky peaking through. Wash lights behind the bar at one end of the pool and a recessed wall at the other wash both surfaces in light which, controlled by timers, changes from white to blue and back again, bringing a sense of the changing day into this artificial environment. In one of the most stunning moves, McLaughlin has also carved a slit within the recessed wall, through which white light beams into the space. Visitors to the centre can view the pool, unseen, through a tiny peephole.
Elsewhere, simplicity dictates McLaughlin's approach. From the ground-floor reception, a vaulted ceiling leads you through double doors into the poolroom, continuing towards the bar at the far end. Along one edge of the room lies a continuous stone bench, along the other maple benches designed by the architect. French limestone, MDF and sandblasted glass give a clean, serene effect, the only punctuation of colour coming from the burnt orange of the end wall.
McLaughlin likes his conceits and here, with the changing light and colourless, bare surfaces, he hoped to 'design the building rather like a beach, with everyone coming along with their bits and pieces and their own colour'. Sadly his client has jumped the gun a bit, introducing tables and chairs and covering the stone bench with rather garish cushions. 'Because it's an all-women's club, ' says McLaughlin, 'I couldn't be loitering around too much to keep an eye on them!'
ARCHITECT Niall McLaughlin Architect: Niall McLaughlin, Adam R ichards
CONTRACTOR London & Southampton
LEISURE CONSULTANT BSA
PROJECT MANAGER Issy Spektor, BDA