You have to go back to 1875 to find a decent civic proposal for the Thames, says Catherine Slessor
Just what is it about the River Thames that brings out the worst in the quintessentially English capacity for inept folies de grandeur? The obvious example is the preposterous and profligate Garden Bridge, now looking fatally compromised by its assorted entanglements and so doomed to remain an elusive glint in the eyes of its blond ambitionists. Wrong bridge, wrong place, wrong time, wrong financial model.
But cast your eye up and down the Thames and other grotesques obligingly heave into view. There’s the London Eye, an inelegant throwback to Vienna’s original cinematic fairground wheel. You can’t imagine Harry Lime delivering the killer existentialist ‘cuckoo clock’ line in a glacially slow-moving pod full of gawping tourists and sozzled hen parties. There’s the hectically over-engineered Hungerford Footbridge, when British architecture was in full-on ‘Hello sailor’ mode and people had a thing for tensile wires and clusters of vaguely nautical masts.
You can’t imagine Harry Lime delivering the killer ‘cuckoo clock’ line in a glacially slow-moving pod full of gawping tourists and sozzled hen parties
Further downstream lies another tensile wet dream, the Millennium Dome, now the O2 Arena, little more than a glorified wedding marquee or giant prosthetic boob. Its mammalian contours are now overshadowed by the neighbouring Emirates Air Line, Boris Johnson’s vanity cable car project constructed for the 2012 Olympics, and possibly the most fatuous way of traversing the Thames ever devised. And don’t get me started on Tower Bridge, possibly the worst and definitely the largest example of mushy Victorian pseudo-medievalism. Fun fact: only the Queen is eligible for a fully engorged, 90 degree opening of Tower Bridge. Commoners have to make do with lesser angles.
London’s river has begotten a shocking Carnival of Horrors but at least a real carnival moves on, eventually. So, now that the Garden Bridge is staring into the abyss, what, if anything, might replace it? What would be civic, convivial and make the most of the river as a natural resource?
Here, history comes to the rescue. In 1875 the Charing Cross Floating Bath was opened on the Thames at Hungerford Bridge. Essentially a water-filled barge enclosed by a standard Victorian glasshouse, this massive, floating swimming pool was a curiosity of its age. Engravings of the time show moustachioed bathers in chastely voluminous trunks (invariably, it was men only) enjoying vigorous bouts of plashing in its agreeable watery milieu. Its backers hoped it would be the first in a series of floating baths along the Thames, but it was not to be and it closed in 1884.
The floating swimming bath in the thames at charing cross
Evolving from converted boats, floating baths were an 18th century European invention. Today, if you want to swim in a floating bath you have to go to Paris, where the Piscine Joséphine Baker, which opened in 2006, caters for bathers all year round with its retractable roof and generous sun decks. In summer it is mobbed, a sybaritic and democratic refuge from the heat and stress of city life.
Compared with the Garden Bridge’s stratospheric £185 million budget, a floating pool works out at a mere £11 million
There have been various attempts at devising a contemporary version of the Charing Cross Floating Bath. Most recently, architects at Studio Octopi, who are also hoping to reinstate Peckham’s long-lost lido, have been developing a proposal for Thames Baths, a floating pool moored at the Victoria Embankment. It would charge local community pool rates (around a fiver) and its sun decks would be free to use. Compared with the Garden Bridge’s stratospheric £185 million budget, a floating pool works out at a mere £11 million. For the cost of one Garden Bridge you could build an entire chain of Thames Baths, illuminating the river banks with accessible, modern oases of pleasure and healthfulness.
From being declared ‘biologically dead’ in 1957, the Thames has since spectacularly recovered its ecological equilibrium, with clean water and thriving marine life. If only it could recover its architectural equilibrium.