Architecture & Design: Full steam ahead

Previous schemes may have failed, but this time nothing is going to stop Bath re-emerging as a spa town.
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Bath Council is making good progress with its plans to convert the fourth-biggest tourist attraction in Britain back into a spa town, but not one that Jane Austen would have recognised.

Two years ago, Bath Council, eager to rejuvenate the parched spa and stop the town from turning into a museum set-piece, applied to the Millennium Commission for lottery money to restore and convert four listed buildings, including John D Woods's hot baths, built in 1775, and the Grade I listed Cross Baths, and construct a contemporary spa.

"In 20 years there have been five schemes to revive Bath as a spa town. All failed, because they were too respectful of the classical buildings. You can't run a health hydro in an out-of-date building," says councillor Paul Simons.

They got pounds 6.8m to replace a Twenties neoclassical stone-clad derelict pool building with a glass-and-steel cube-within-a-cube by Nicholas Grimshaw. The Millennium Commission also threw in half a million pounds for scientific research for hydro-geologists after Bath Council persuaded them that quarrying in the Mendips and the need for boreholes meant that the water- table needed protection. But their application for art in a public space was turned down, so the Royal Society of Arts stepped in with pounds 6,500 to get the Vietnamese artist Vong Phaophanit to explore artistic collaboration with architecture.

Vong Phaophanit filled the Tate with rice when he scooped the Turner Prize four years ago. Now he plans to irrigate the historic streets of Bath with water. Jets of water on the hour, every hour, in summer will rise from Bath Street, which links the Roman baths to the spa waters; in winter, jets of steam will create an eerie mist. How this project is ikely to affect the traffic is unclear, although the council would ideally like to close the street to cars.

Mr Simons does not see this as controversial. "When you look at the things [Phaophanit]'s done with light in particular, and applied to water and transparency, you discover interesting conceptual ideas that will link the main thoroughfare of Bath from the Roman baths towards the new spa project."

Phaophanit's last public-art installation, a 14m-long wall of crimson glass built at the Thames Barrier, was shattered by vandals and had to be dismantled just a month after completion.

"I was pained by that experience," Vong says, choosing his words carefully. "The engineers, the builders, all worked so hard; it was an intense experience. But it taught me that artists cannot solve racial or economic problems in a deprived region. Their artistic input should be accompanied by other, much larger programmes."

Bath will not be Phaophanit's first water sculpture. In 1986 he filled a gallery in Aix-en-Provence (which is, coincidentally, twinned with Bath) with hundreds of little plastic freezer-bags of water, all at different depths, to catch the natural light from the windows and the artificial light in the dimmed core. The sparkling, iridescent installation, coloured like a rainbow in prisms of light, was highly acclaimed.

"European cities all have great fountains. This is a very good opportunity," says Mr Simons.

For Nick Grimshaw, Bath represents, in one stone-clad mellowed yellow classical package, the challenge of his career.

Grimshaw likes to give his monumental buildings transparent membranes. Look at the elegant, sinuous Waterloo Terminal snaking through south London like a train. Or the Financial Times building in which the printing-presses can be seen. When he designed the British pavilion at the 1992 Expo in Seville, the facade was a wall of water by the sculptor William Pye, an idea he wanted to transplant to Bath to heat the building with thermal springs. So the proposed entrance to his hydro will be glass set behind stone columns, and his Turkish steam baths, four glass cubicles shrouded in mist, are pierced with light through holes in a stone cladding, in the manner of an Arabic latticed screen.

Rather boldly, and some say over- confidently, Bath Council have demolished the Beau Street baths, designed by AJ Taylor in 1925-27, to clear the site for the building. Normally you don't pull down anything until permission is granted for what is to replace it, but the deadline for Millennium Commission projects to open is 31 December 2001, and the Council had to get archaeological work under way on site. So they pulled down a respectful little stone building, nothing much architecturally and not listed, but none the less on a World Heritage Site, for which no application for planning permission had been made. "If the worst happens we can always put it together again, this time without an asbestos roof," says Peter Carey from Donald Insall, the conservation architects with Grimshaws.

Grimshaw had to alter the scheme after consultation with English Heritage, which raised questions of scale and proportion, and with the Royal Fine Arts Commission, which reminded the architects of Bath's "Roman resonance". But the fundamental concept of the glass cube within a stone-clad cube remains.

Bath Spa is a microcosm of the flawed practice of matched funding for Millennium projects - lottery funding put into place by the Millennium Commission. First the project was estimated to cost pounds 13m but it escalated to pounds 16.8m. So they were given lottery funding of pounds 6.8m and pounds 3m from the Dutch operators of the spa, and the Council contributed pounds 3m, including the cost of the land, and raised pounds 600,000 from selling off five-year membership of the spa, and other stunts. But they still need another pounds 1m. Fast.

The Dutch operator, not unnaturally, has taken a keen interest in how his commercial project will work. So has the client, Bath Council. Nick Grimshaw has downsized floor-to-ceiling heights, even as he managed to withstand the request for Seventies-style saunas to be installed. He has lowered the roof line and dug down below ground in two major redesigns. Finding himself hemmed in by English Heritage's comments, the Dutch investor's commercial needs, the blue-plaque brigade and various archaeologists, Grimshaw has responded fluently and with fluidity in retaining the original concept. It still looks like the handsome building that he first presented.

As the archaeologists on the demolition site went below Roman levels, they found proof that the site had been inhabited since 5000BC. They also found early medieval layers, and some bath structures of the 18th century. And at the back of the 19th-century John Woods Hot Bath, they even found a hot-water tank built on a Roman hypocaust system.