The historic city of Bath in south west England is famous for the quality of its environment, with its classical architecture born in the Georgian period arranged as streets, squares and crescents nestling in a bowl of verdant hills. Just by the centre, to the side of its river Avon, there lies, however, an open wound – a site of unfortunate structures disfiguring both the river bank and the open space of the Recreation Ground, compromising these assets while also thwarting connections between them.
The drawings and visualizations presented here imagine a different reality, a vision of how things could be. It is simply a piece of informed conjecture, a hypothetical ‘counter project’ that presents a fresh approach to the conundrum that the site poses in a different direction to the various proposals advanced over the last couple of decades.
The shortcomings of the existing rugby stadium and the surrounding area are both obvious and well known, while the nature of the Recreation Ground (or ‘Rec’) is the subject of long-standing and ongoing contention. None of the intricacies need reiterating here, except those for which we can intuit solutions. The primary problem is poor connectivity with the rest of the town due to changes in level and difficult boundary conditions. These create practical challenges during match days, while relegating the waterfront to a somewhat desolate left-over area and disconnecting it from the amenity of the Rec. The current temporary stadium presents largely blank and unattractive elevations. This and the 1970s leisure centre meet each other back-to-back thoughtlessly. The latter with its ground floor taken up by parking, plant rooms and stores feels actively hostile to pedestrians. Furthermore, its outdated budget design fails to do justice to the unique river front location.
Unsatisfactory as this situation is, recent plans for the stadium risk making the situation worse in some respects. Our critique of the new scheme put forward by Bath Rugby in May 2023 can be found here. One reason is that they have so far treated the stadium on its own, and not in unison with the Leisure Centre. Irrespective of the look and condition of both complexes, there will never be a satisfactory, let alone optimum, resolution for either of them as long as the incoherent nature of their junction persists.
Aerial view of the existing stadium and leisure centre.
Photographs of the existing stadium and its immediate surroundings.
Counter projects come into being when a special place is so blighted or threatened that those who love it, be they architects, urban designers or community groups, can no longer stand by in frustration and impotence but feel compelled to envision something better.
Conceived by Apollodorus Architecture, the present counter project is both a theoretical exercise (a kind of design gym) and a provocation. We seek to provoke conversations that might, who knows, lead in positive directions.
In being unfunded, our scheme necessarily remains at a conceptual, indicative stage. We have aimed to achieve a capacity of around 18,000 spectators, which is roughly in line with the previous schemes. However, there will be things we have missed or could not know, or that we did not have the resources to investigate. Nonetheless we trust that the inevitable faults of detail will not deflect anyone concerned with the future of Bath from engaging with the principles at issue. The proposals contain clues for an alternative approach capable of transforming a vexed but core part of the city in ways that fit its nature, ethos and heritage.
"Counter projects come into being when a special place is so blighted or threatened that those who love it, be they architects, urban designers or community groups, can no longer stand by in frustration and impotence but feel compelled to envision something better."
In terms of architectural form, our starting point for the stadium is the oval shape of ancient amphitheatres. The choice seems apt given the prominence of the city - then named Aquae Sulis - in Roman Britain. Moreover, as Bath blossomed in the Georgian period its development revolved around bold geometrical set pieces laid out by John Wood the Elder, Thomas Baldwin and others: Queen Square, the Circus, the Royal Crescent, Pulteney Street and so on.
It happens that an oval contrives to reduce the overall bulk of a stadium by comparison with a rectangle of the same spectator capacity. Rather than harsh straight edges confronting the waterfront on one side and the Rec on the other, the curving structure can merge more organically with its immediate context, as do Bath’s crescents, while softening the impact on critical views to and from the enclosing hills.
To the north, as an anchor to the adjacent urban fabric, the long axis of the amphitheatre aligns with Laura Place and Johnstone Street. The scheme ‘plugs’ into the end of the latter, offering a street-level connection to the upper level of the arena along with a view into the body of the stadium, and beyond. Here the opening of the façade is framed by two small towers. At the same time there is a cascading staircase inviting people down to the waterfront and Rec, or up in the opposite direction.
In the distance, the tower of the leisure centre terminates the extended axis. At a height of 30 meters or so, it is visible from various locations in the town centre, and acts as an urban way-finding marker, helping people navigate towards the complex of buildings.
Visualisation showing the street-level access into the arena from Johnstone Street.
New pedestrian connections
Active Frontage (opportunity for commercial and public uses - shops, cafes, restaurants)
Our scheme seeks to preserve the Grade 2 Listed President's Lounge. The 18th century structure
juts out from the end of Johnstone Street, as though in anticipation of it carrying on. We propose to enlarge the building to create a the landing for the curvilinear set of staircases providing the much needed pedestrian link between the level of the street and the river walkway.
To the south a new leisure centre is envisioned in a contextual manner, enhancing pedestrian connections and making the most of the riverside setting. The complex is broken up into two main blocks, which helps preserve the smaller urban grain of the traditional city with its pitched roofs and parapets. Connected to the level of North Parade by a readily apparent stair, a moderately-sized square is created in front of the existing Pavilion, which we would retain. From here people can access the leisure centre (and limited associated parking), or progress through to the stadium or the Rec, where, as suits its constitution, we imagine facilities could cater to varied sporting activities and associated clubs and amenity groups.
Visualisation showing the redesigned Leisure Centre with the arena in the distance.
Mediating between the stadium and leisure complexes, the curving street would be lined on both sides with shops, small cafés and reception spaces. On match days these would cater to the rugby spectators.
Meanwhile, on the west side, a new terraced river front would extend all the way from the North Parade Bridge to the area of the weir. A wide array of bars and restaurants located both in the arena and on the ground floor of the leisure centre would animate this quarter, augmenting the amenity and commercial offer that Bath affords.
Visualisation showing the new riverbank with North Parade Bridge in the distance.
NOTE ON STYLE
The greatest value of these proposals lies in the urban vision: the scale, grain, connections, views, frontage, mix of uses and contextual respect that help pieces of a city to thrive by virtue of being legible to, and valued by, all who live, work and visit there.
Style is a secondary issue. But one must choose, not least because visualisations help as wide an audience as possible to understand the urban aspirations. We show buildings that are unashamedly classical, in part out of vocation, but mainly because Bath is at heart, a classical environment. The affection it holds for so many is a testament to the enduring vision of the founders of the Georgian city. In a spirit of continuity and respect for that vision, the project seeks to build on and emulate Bath’s heritage, where possible using traditional materials.
This is not to stop the architectural language moving on in response to technological challenges such as a tensile roof structure, just as Brunel did in his own time. There are those who characterise continuity with historic style pejoratively as ‘pastiche’, the theory being that this somehow detracts from the authenticity of the original pre-modern city. The answer for many is the ‘contrast and compare’ approach, meaning that the new should look modern and different to the old. This can be work well for relatively small-scale interventions, for example Thermae Bath Spa and the Holburne museum extension. But large-scale developments are quite another matter; at an urban scale the ‘contrast and compare’ mode creates rifts that separate and divide rather than cohere.
While the outward appearance and quality of a building is integral to its success, one could easily re-imagine the scheme in a more stripped-down fashion without such reliance on the classical orders. This could produce cost savings, and recent techniques of building with stone using cnc cutting have proved surprisingly economical. The point is to avoid ‘value-engineered’ buildings in unloved styles; they make for very false economies. The results become out-dated, unpopular and uneconomic, leading, as recent decades have shown us time and time again, to demolition and then further cycles of short-sightedness that make no financial or ecological sense. In the search for urban patterns that are human, sustainable and resilient, approaches that learn from tried-and-tested traditions have much in their favour.
"At an urban scale the ‘contrast and compare’ mode creates rifts that separate and divide rather than cohere."
GET IN TOUCH
For more information on our scheme, or if you want to let us know what you think, get in touch - email us at: