Do you ever wonder how many buildings for leisure and pleasure a nation can take? Countless old mills, factories and mines, so many long-serving workhorses, are being transformed from gritty, demanding and rigorous places of business for reuse as so many pleasure domes, to be discovered and enjoyed at leisure in the nation’s playtime. But what of old buildings that were designed for leisure in the first place? What’s to become of them now the nation’s affections have turned from Assembly Rooms and Lidos to shopping malls and multiplex?

We pretty much take swimming pools for granted these days but they were radically interesting and exciting places in the late 1800s and particularly in the 1920s and ‘30s when public swimming became really fashionable. This pool in Newport is one of many in Europe which completely transformed leisure time for working people. No more bathing in the brick ponds or the freezing cold lake. Sleek and slender art deco dreams were made with reinforced concrete structures and INDOOR heated swimming for all! Sadly, this pool was abandoned in the 1980s in favour of a Multiscreen Cinema – sorry, Sports Centre (they all look the same these days), with “proper parking” on the other side of town.



Since being abandoned for a younger model the Newport Pool has struggled to find a sense of purpose. In stark contrast to a former pool in Paris which has been summarily transformed into a highly successful Tempietto della Borsa (aka Little Temple of the Handbag).  A visit to the Hermès swimming pool in the Paris Hotel Lutetia gives a whole new meaning to splashing out. This world-renowned saddler and leather goods brand transformed the former hotel swimming pool into their latest cathedral of consumption and I wondered how they’d approached transforming a building designed for leisure and relaxation into a building designed for..well, leisure and relaxation.


The Hermès dry pool is very pleased with itself, the impeccably dressed assistants versed in basic information to help the curious tourist make sense of the transformation – although their drills had clearly not extended to learning what type of wood was used for the organic forms of bentwood which now dominate the space. I liked how these appealing structures describe new ways to circulate around the old pool, replacing the linear drive of the former swimmers who would have ploughed up and down its length.


The thing they got right here is the sense of spectacle (an element which was also at the heart of those magnificent art deco pools), albeit transformed and mediated through an entirely different set of ideas from those which inspired the drama of the 1930s pools. Descending the steps into the now dry pool at Hermes I was still filled with a sense of excitement and a frisson of expectation. The fact that my expectation was met with thousand dollar handbags and couture coats for babies is perhaps the subject of another post…

The wave-like forms, an echo of the watery shapes that once inhabited this void, are a confident and reversible subdivision of a space which was only ever meant to be temporarily divided by limbs in motion. And, if I did have a cool thousand to spend on a head-scarf I can’t think of a more pleasingly quirky and multi-layered environment in which to do so.

But my favourite swimming pool transformation is in Roubaix, a town near Lille in northern France which grew rich and proud on creating textiles. The baths complex was as much about bathing for hygiene as swimming for leisure and the standing building is redolent with distinctive architectural voices. For a range of complex reasons (to do with enviable French attitudes to the public value of culture) this swimming pool has had a more profound and considered makeover as a museum of art and textiles. A makeover that Hermès might have learned from and Newport can only dream of…


Wandering freely around its labyrinthine and glamorous spaces I swear I could hear the distinctive echo of children shouting and water splashing – helped of course by the bold move of retaining the water in the pool. It’s a curious juxtaposition – water and textiles – but because fabrics and thread are what once made the town of Roubaix rich this marriage of leisure and culture seem to me to be made in heaven. The old changing rooms have become a cabinet of curiosities, displaying fine clothing along-side avant-garde creations. The swatch books, jewel in any collector’s crown, have been arranged enticingly behind glazed search rooms, all visible to those visiting the pool or eyeing the sculptures along the water’s edge.


But what of those waiting in the wings? The pools who will never be visited by the Hermès fairy godmother or an arts grant from the French government? The Cleveland Pools in Bath is England’s only surviving Georgian Lido but having closed over 20 years ago the pool is struggling to find sufficient funding. Cleveland Pools may be a small building but it represents a big idea. Perhaps we need to think more carefully about creating new buildings for leisure when there are so many old ones in need of a handbag makeover. http://www.clevelandpools.org.uk/



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