The Social Function of the Sauna

The Social Function of the Sauna
Published: Dec 13, 2012
In the last half-century, London's saunas, bath houses and health clubs have been pulled down, jazzed up or rejigged to fit the transitory tastes of the time. The author asks who exactly are they serving now?

While Zaha Hadid's Aquatics Centre garnered both praise and criticism in equal measure during the London Olympics, the all-too-brief opening of the Barking Bathhouse a little further east has drawn attention to the polarised nature of the capital's health facilities. On the one hand are the increasingly ubiquitous high street health clubs, still booming since the late 1980s. On the other, the council-run public baths and leisure centres, an erratically managed mix of derelict Victorian bathhouses and expensive, regeneration-focused gym conglomerations. This hotchpotch of architectures, functions and facilities is symptomatic of the inherent ambiguity underpinning notions of community, money and recreation.

Beautiful but temporary, and funded by a mix of public and private, the Barking Bathhouse is a two-month pop-up “experimental spa and bar” part-funded with £125,000 from the Mayor's Outer London Fund and with support from Arts Council England. Designed by architects Something & Son (the rising stars behind FARM:shop in Dalston), the Swedish-style pod-based structure has a pleasantly utilitarian design and offers a range of treatment rooms, a sauna and cold room in light and contemporary surroundings. In some ways though there's something pleasantly traditional about the project's professed aims: in order to touch “the heart of the community like the bathhouses of old”, prices for Barking residents are set at just £2. It’s a nod to the locals – a gesture which is probably irrelevant to the influx of smoothie-slurping creative types braving the fringes of the District line on a novelty day out.

The idea of the public bath was largely the product of practical Victorian concerns for sanitation.

However good-intentioned, this ambitious project is only open for the duration of the Olympics and their immediate aftermath – like any number of the stunts and happenings currently cropping up all over the city. It’s difficult to see exactly what part Barking Bathhouse will play in the process of “urban renewal” currently being attributed to it on Underground posters and the website. If there’s to be any notion of legacy – the buzzword of 2012 – it will come in the form of the new leisure centre scheduled to be built on the site. Costing a whopping £12.98 million, the new Abbey Leisure Centre is intended to replace both Goresbrook Leisure Centre and Abbey Sports Centre, which, according to council documents, each require just £1 million or so to bring them up to scratch. The council envisage a “high quality designed building that will be an integral part of the regeneration of the Civic Quarter of the Town Centre”. Despite local complaints, there will be no sports hall and no squash courts. Unlike the Barking Bathhouse, it’s unlikely to be something worth travelling out of town for.

Whilst the baths of the Ancient Greeks were designed for the physical and spiritual glorification of the body and housed in buildings akin to temples, in the UK the very idea of the public bath was largely the product of practical Victorian concerns for sanitation. Following the Baths and Washhouses Act of 1846 (part-conceived by Edwin Chadwick to improve public health and help combat cholera) by 1915 most towns had a bathhouse of some kind, their architecture frequently reflecting the values of that bygone era. Families would pilgrimage to the towering red brick institutions for their weekly bath. These days, the stately bathhouses are in possibly terminal decline. Exacerbated by the spread of expensive members-only high street health clubs, London is now awash with abandoned and closed swimming pools, frequently neglected by local authorities for years before finally closing.

Now it’s homogenous, new-build multiplexes and windowless basement gyms which are what the people (at least the ones with disposable income) need. As of April 2011, Virgin Active, for example, has 124 clubs across the UK, compared with just 24 in 2006, while Fitness First, the largest privately owned health club group in the world, has over 405,000 UK members, and 56 clubs in London alone. At the same time, the beautiful old Victorian bathhouses slide slowly into ruin. The elegant Poplar Baths, for example, built in 1852, was closed in 1985 and has now fallen into disrepair, while, more recently, Haggerston Baths was shut without warning in 2010. Many others have been turned into flats, with only superficial traces of their former uses: the Hornsey Road Baths and Laundry, for example, still retain a huge neon sign of a swimmer diving into a pool. At night, it's illuminated spectacularly.

Refurbishment is a rare thing these days, as both councils and developers prefer to demolish and start again. But it can happen. Marshall Street Baths in Soho reopened to the public in 2010, whilst Forest Hill Pool (believed to have been the oldest working swimming baths in London) is due to reopen in summer 2012. It had been scheduled for demolition by Lewisham Council but the new mixed use leisure centre, run by the council and a charity called Fusion, promises to retain the original Victorian frontage. Other examples of recent refurbishments demonstrate how popular these places can be. London Fields Lido lay derelict from 1988 until being refurbished and reopened in 2006 and has been a huge success since. Similarly, after a local campaign, Brockwell Lido was reopened in 1994. It's now home to an excellent café as well as the beautiful pool and, in 2003, was classed as Grade II listed.

The first spas were introduced to Britain during medieval times by returning explorers who experienced such delights in the Middle East.

Refurbishment though is occasionally a painful process. While Barking Bathhouse opened just in time for the Olympics, over on the edge of Shoreditch, Ironmonger Row has been closed for refurbishment since 2010. So far this has cost a total of £16million and has only just opened in the last month, well behind schedule. First opened in 1931, Ironmonger Row was one of the last in the wave of bath-building initiated in the mid-nineteenth century. Used up until the 1960s as a training facility for Olympic divers, there's a certain irony to the fact that Ironmonger Row still hadn't reopened at the time of the 2012 Olympics – perhaps that explains the solitary bronze medal for the divers of Team GB.

Situated in the basement beneath the main pool was Ironmonger Row Turkish Baths, little known until around 2006. In an atmosphere of faded grandeur – with polished wood, marble slabs and once-plush carpets – a strange mix of seasoned regulars and local hipsters could experience the steam room, icy cold plunge pool, relaxation area, and enjoy a toasted sandwich and a cigarette (in the days before the smoking ban) in a strange little annexe room. It was place of unique charm – very different from the pool upstairs – which hopefully the refit will retain.

Long before such public-private partnerships and before even the virtue of the Victorians, the first spas were introduced to Britain during medieval times by returning explorers who experienced such delights in the Middle East. These were effectively public baths, in places like Southwark notoriously, where people could bathe together in warm water. They soon gained a slightly dubious reputation as fronts for brothels and other questionable behaviour – so much so that in the early 1500s Henry VI tried to outlaw the bathhouses (or 'stewes') on the south bank of the Thames. Due to mass public outcry, they were simply limited in number to twelve, and were not outlawed altogether until 1546, when Henry VIII finally ran out of patience with the “abominable and detestable sin” taking place in these “common open places called the stewes”.

Some independent spas still retain the same liberal exoticism, off-putting to some but inclusive to all nevertheless. Opposite King's Cross police station, for example, is a sauna and massage parlour with a sign in the window saying, “tourists welcome”. One wonders how the Olympics impacted on their particular business. Meanwhile, places like Rio's Naturist Spa in Kentish Town offer all-night opening “for your total pleasure”. Operating on a “pay-as-you-use” basis rather than requiring membership like a high-street gym, Rio's is a huge sauna club with high class facilities, including three steam rooms, saunas, jacuzzi, and heated outdoor garden. Of course the fact they have private rooms where consenting adults can go means this is quite an open-minded place.

Today, keeping clean may not be the public concern it once was, but basic enjoyment of communal exercise or relaxation in pleasant, open surroundings is a shared ritual people still want to maintain. Of course, now we have the luxury of choice, where we go to bathe will not only depend on where we live but who we want to share our water with. Now that any given community is so often a whirling mix of transient visitors, permanent residents and, as always, secreted agendas and alliances, it’s no wonder that spas, baths, pools and saunas sprawl across London in various states of regeneration, disorder and undress.

London's oldest surviving spa is over in the west of the city. Housed in a majestic late 1920s building and refurbished in 2006, Porchester Spa gets the balance right between functionality, affordability and class. It's run by Westminster Council, and the high percentage of local people gives the spa a community feel that contrasts dramatically with that of, say, Thistle City Barbican Hotel, situated just a stone's throw from Ironmonger Row. With rooms from around £50 per night, the hotel is usually cluttered with parties of hen night and stag night revellers up from the north to experience a wild few days in London. On a Sunday morning the budget spa is filled with hotel guests recovering from the excesses of the previous night: it's an animated, revolving, mix of people and conversation.

In their different ways, both Porchester Spa and Thistle Hotel reflect the kind of functions that bathhouses can serve for a community – be that one of loyal regulars or ever-changing visitors. That is what, for all its high-quality design and innovation, Barking Bathhouse cannot hope to replicate. But then, like the Olympics, that was never really the point.



DAVID C WEST, who co runs Decima Gallery, is a writer and curator based in east London and known for press hoaxes such as the Jack Duckworth Memorial Clinic and 'F*k Art and Pimp'. 


Image credit (top to bottom): joanofarctan, C_Dave, RobWinton, watchlooksee, UK Pictures


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