On a recent Radio 5 broadcast, British swimmer Mark Foster was asked about his decision to pose naked in the July issue of Cosmopolitan. Foster bemoaned the media's lack of interest in swimming, justifying his own exhibitionism as a much-needed move to publicise his sport. Swimming just isn't sexy. And with a few exceptions, the same can be said for its buildings. Architecturally, there is little between Disney-esque leisure-dromes, palm-and-wicker health clubs, and graffiti-ridden chlorine-saturated municipal baths.
As Mike Lawless of lda Architects sees it, one of the most important aspects of Sports Council lottery funding is that in architectural terms 'people feel they can go for something above the norm'. This was the intention of the London Borough of Bromley, a borough which takes its swimming seriously. This is, after all, the borough which spawned Duncan Goodhew, possibly the only swimmer whose name has entered into the public consciousness. In November 1996 Bromley appointed lda, a seven year-old practice specialising in sport and leisure facilities, as lead consultant to redesign a faltering lottery application to replace the Victorian pool hall once frequented by Goodhew with the brand new Beckenham Spa.
Situated just off Beckenham High Street, the Spa forms one edge of an urban square. Or rather, part of it does. The more 'open' areas of the complex - the reception area and the bar - overlook the square, while the bulk of the building overlooks a car park. Lawless' aim was to create an overlooked and animated public space: 'I'm an out and out socialist. It's about the community - giving back a sense of civic space', but the arrangement has the interesting spin-off effect of creating a showcase of changing public-sector architecture. The Spa is flanked by an arts centre and a public library, the former housed in the type of red-brick pseudo-gothic building which Victorians favoured for schools and corrective institutions; the latter in a nondescript, 70s brick box.
Viewed as an embodiment of contemporary ideals, the Spa's crisp elevations (planes of white Sto render interspersed with planes of ultra-precise terracotta tiles) give the impression of health and hygiene, but with a 1990s warmth. Exposed steelwork and frameless glass create interior spaces with the pared-down aesthetic which has distant roots in the industrial preoccupations of High-Tech architecture, but which has now settled down into an altogether gentler incarnation - more corporate hq than factory floor.
From the Conran Contracts furniture in the bar to the raised glass-box meeting room which overlooks the pool, the building adopts a 1990s brand of chic Modernism which is equally at home in a night-club or a boardroom - and applies it to a swimming pool complex. This is an adaptable aesthetic, whose proponents see the display of good design and good taste as more important than a simple expression of function. The rear and side elevations, which are highly visible to passing trains, stand out as high-quality modern design amongst the south London sprawl, but give no indication that the building has anything to do with sport. Lawless has plans to erect a large sculpture of a diving swimmer against the side facade - a move which will counteract the building's inherent reticence with the Las Vegas trick of categorising a building by means of a single blatant sign designed to be viewed at speed.
As an advertisement for swimming, this kind of 'serious architecture' seems altogether more agreeable than the kind of buildings which are instantly recognisable as public baths because they look like warehouses but are not in the industrial part of town.
The Spa has its warehouse-scale volumes - a 20m x 10m teaching pool and an eight-lane 25m competition pool hall exist side by side in a 15m high space - but its external expression has been broken down into a composition of more manageable components. Sections of the south facing wall have been 'pulled out' creating poolside seating bays. Panels of glass blocks, and glazed walls to the seating bays, allow swimmers to enjoy natural light, while preventing direct glare onto the pool. Internally, the bulk of the main pool hall is broken down by planes of colour - a yellow rear wall to the seating bay, and a plane of blue tiles at the end of the pool.
Beckenham Spa is an ambitious project in aesthetic terms, but also in terms of technical innovation. This is the first building to use a mobile floor developed by Thermelek Engineering in association with British Aerospace. Hinged along the middle, the floor allows either end of the teaching pool to be either shallow or deep. It is also the first implementation of a terracotta cladding system developed by the manufacturer Eisenberg and the installer Tellings, and there are numerous other instances of the design team putting in extra effort to create just the right effect. The clock, for example, was tweaked by Lawless, who persuaded the manufacturer to replace the black hands with stainless steel. It looks great, although the absence of a second hand is a serious deficiency in an environment designed for competition swimming.
Compromises have been made. The new building has had to incorporate the existing dry-sports centre - now partially refurbished to include a fitness suite, creche and children's play zone - and while the existing facilities have been skilfully combined with the new, the new parts of the building are noticeably better in quality. Even here, the overall effect is marred by the paraphernalia of everyday use. The bar, for example, has recently been unceremoniously sliced in two by a bottom-of-the-range timber garden trellis. lda may have found an architectural type which is appropriate for the modern-day swimming complex, but there are those who have yet to realise the burden of guardianship which such a building brings.
But if, as Mark Foster claims, swimming suffers from an image problem, lda's work is a crucial means of conveying the message that the pool can be cool. It is proof that there is absolutely no reason why an aesthetic that is generally associated with high-cost private developments should be considered off-limits by the likes of the Borough of Bromley.
There is the added advantage that the by-now familiar language of architectural transparency is particularly seductive when applied to a pool. With walls of glass offering multi-layered views, Beckenham Spa takes full advantage of the fact that, in architectural terms, swimming's greatest asset is the sheer dramatic potential of water. The offending trellis is particularly painful, because it screens views of the teaching pool and to the main pool beyond. And offering a bar with the best views in town is a potent means of persuading the punters that the swimming complex is the place to be.