history

History of Arlington Baths

A unique Victorian building

The original building

(This article comes from the Wikipedia article on the Arlington Baths Club with minor edits)

The building was originally designed by John Burnet, the father of Sir John James Burnet in 1871. This was for the part of the building containing the swimming pool, the Senior and Junior baths and the Senior and Junior changing rooms which now forms the northern part of the building.

As originally designed by Burnet the building was single storey and conceived as a kind of theme and variation on the idea of subdivision by twos and threes. Thus the main facade onto Arlington Street was modulated by means of two pavilions, located at either end of the building with the centre marked by arched windows arranged in groups of threes. The effect is that of a restrained and modest Classicism, more rural than urban in its nature, well proportioned and pleasing in an unpretentious way.

To describe the design as Palladian would perhaps be to stretch a point too far – although Palladio did draw his influence from Roman Farm buildings. Nonetheless Italianate influence is obvious not only in the balance of the elements but also in the use of a “piano nobile” by which the main spaces are built on top of a semi basement level containing smaller spaces servicing the larger accommodation above. One entered the building at the higher level through the arched entrance in the middle of the facade, coming straight out onto the transverse axis of the pool. From this point the emphasis of the building swung through ninety degrees onto the main axis of the pool hall along which the other accommodation was laid out. The hall itself reinforces the symmetry of the building by its imposing rhythm of exposed wooden roof trusses supporting a simple pitched roof lit by strips of glazing.

Burnet’s intention was therefore to create a composition organised symmetrically, that is by halves, but relieved by a sub-division by threes. The counterpoint between the rhythm of twos played off against the rhythm of threes gives the building its richness.

Also well worth mentioning was the plenum system used to heat the building. Whether by accident or design, this system, in which heated air is passed through the building by convection via ducts built into the fabric, owes its origins to the Roman hypocaust. It was an excellent system, ideal for use in the saturated atmospheres of swimming pools because it encouraged ventilation. It created much comment at the time and featured in contemporary textbooks.

The first extension

Not long after the building was opened, in fact barely before Burnet had time to vacate the site, a Turkish Room plus ancillary accommodation was added in 1875, allowing the membership to increase to six hundred. The Turkish Room, which lies at the back of the plan and to the north of the original building, – so that it would have been visible from the street, – is justly well known. A Glaswegian homage to the Alhambra, consisting of a large square room, heated to high temperatures by plenum with tiled walls and floor and a beehive shaped roof studded with small star shaped windows glazed with coloured glass, sufficient only to light the space dimly. Originally there was also a fountain in the centre, sadly no longer there. In an atmosphere of sepulchral calm the bathers recline on benches along the walls sweltering in superheated seclusion. No talking is allowed within the space.

The second extension

By 1893 more space was again needed. Andrew Myles was employed as architect (Burnet was 79 by this time) to add an additional reading room and billiard room. These were added to the south end of the existing building in the form of a single storey “piano nobile” with service spaces below, it extended the facade of the building southwards across the front of the Turkish Room. It would also have created the space now occupied by the Entrance Hall. Myles did a workmanlike, and it has to be said, sensible job, in simply copying the details of the original building onto his extension; nonetheless, a change in eaves level marked it as a separate construction.

The third extension

This added a second storey to Myles’ extension, and presumably, he was again the architect. The intention was more radical. The entrance was moved from the centre of Burnet’s building to what now emerged as a kind of interregnum between the two phases of the street frontage. This was developed separately as an entrance hall leading to a grand staircase, which in turn led to a new reading room and billiard room, plus other administrative spaces, on the first floor. Myles emphasised this bay by means of a triple arched entrance and steps with a five arched loggia above, both of which have an exaggerated nervous verticality about them which is at odds with the quietness of Burnet’s facade. Coincidentally, the entrance to the Western Baths, built round about this time, is very similar. Above the remainder of his extension that is, to the south of the entrance bay, Myles simply extended the building up to form an elegant space with exposed roof trusses and glazing at the apex.

The fourth extension

By now, Burnet’s simple single storey building must have looked strangely out of sorts, with a two storey extension attached to the end of it.

Thankfully, in 1902 a further increase in membership convinced the Club that a further extension was necessary. Thus order was restored, in some form at least, by the addition of a storey to the street frontage of Burnet’s original building. This did not extend the pool hall itself, but simply the bank of rooms which lay between the pool hall and the street.

For this purpose the Club engaged architect number three, (or was it four?), by the name of Benjamin Conner, who extended the front wall of the original building directly upwards to create a new larger billiard hall and long gallery – now used as a gym – lit by a regular rhythm of single windows. Again exposed timber roof trusses and partial roof glazing are used to good effect in these spaces which are generally practical, well proportioned and enjoyed.

In this way, over four phases and a period of thirty years, the Arlington Baths Club grew by a process of accretion. The result, perhaps surprisingly, is not unpleasant. In fact its haphazard eclecticism gives it a strangely modern, or, rather, post modern, appeal.

All four phases speak with their own voices, but the result is more of a conversation than an argument. Burnet’s original building can still be seen and appreciated; its companions – with the exception of the entrance bay – do treat it with the deference it is due. The subsequent architects did generally take sufficient notice of what was already there to ensure continuity in what followed this is particularly true of the combination of simple well proportioned spaces, exposed roof trusses and excellent levels of daylighting which are something of a standard throughout the building.

Refurbishment

The building was partially refurbished with a grant from the National Lottery Fund in 2000.

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