It’s 15 months late, it’s doubled in cost and the project team has got into a big fight with itself – but all will be forgotten when the warm waters of Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners’ Bath Spa are soothing harrowed souls …
by Martin Spring

You would think that restoring hot-spring bathing to Bath would be a natural and therapeutic process. After all, the activity has been part of the town’s life ever since the Romans made it a centre for their obsession with bathtime nearly 2000 years ago, and it was only after a health scare in 1978 that the practice was discontinued.

But the Bath Spa project has been anything but soothing. At £23m, the cost is double the original budget and the client, the architect and the contractor are locked in a bitter row.

Sadly, the spat has marked what has turned out to be a remarkably harmonious combination of

modern architecture and historic conservation. The project consists

of a new building, containing

two pools, and the restoration of five Georgian buildings, four of which are grade I-listed – and the site is located 100 yards from the original Roman baths.

Encouraged by the Millennium Commission, which sunk £7.8m of lottery funds into the project, the district council brought together two architects at opposite ends

of the stylistic spectrum. The restoration work was assigned

to one of Britain’s foremost conservation architects, Donald Insall Associates, and the new building was commissioned from Grimshaw, famous for the space-age Eden Project in Cornwall.

The big challenge to Grimshaw was how to relate its building to its neighbours without resorting to pastiche. The easy bit was forming

a bond between the materials in

old and new buildings: the design combines honey-coloured Bath stone and modern frameless glazing – an obvious choice.

A trickier task was relating forms. Here Grimshaw has taken the basic cube shape of the adjacent Hot Bath building, designed by John Wood the Younger of Royal Crescent fame, and replicated it

as a raised structure within the

pool building.

As for reconciling styles, this

was a step too far for the fiercely contemporary Grimshaw. Instead of Georgian sash windows, Grimshaw’s cube has tiny portholes; instead of mouldings and ornamentation it

has crisply incised joints between

stack-bonded ashlar blocks; and instead of a stone plinth it is supported on four concrete mushroom columns borrowed from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax factory in Wisconsin. In fact, the only stylistic features it shares with the 18th century are elegant detailing and refined craftsmanship. But given the materials and geometry, that’s all that’s needed.

The second pool in Grimshaw’s building is on the roof. Year-round open-air bathing has not come to Bath courtesy of drastic climate change but from the naturally

warm spa waters. The pool also commands magnificent views of the surrounding World Heritage city and the wooded hills beyond. With such delights, Bath’s restored spa, the only working natural spa in Britain, promises not only a therapeutic experience but an exhilarating

one too. Maybe the project team should give it a try.