STADIUM FOR BATH - WRECKING THE REC?
This is a watershed moment for Bath. Development proposals are unfolding for one of the most important and sensitive sites at the heart of this unique historic city, the Recreation Ground or ‘Rec’. The site fronts on to the river, is a stone’s throw from the Abbey and can be looked down on from the hills all around. What gets built here could have a make-or-break impact. It’s a matter of national as well as local significance.
Bath Rugby’s Vision for a new permanent stadium at the Rec, contains aspirations that sound great in the abstract. But the platitudes and fine sentiments find insufficient match in the substance of the project, which is not bad for an expedient budget solution, but one that will sit ill in the setting and age poorly. A city of Bath’s stature and a World Heritage asset deserves much better.
Here is a critique of the proposals, based on the images and drawings made public by Bath Rugby on May 6th, 2023.
At the end you will find a preview of a different vision: a counter-project developed independently by our architectural practice, funded by nothing other than conviction.
Bath Rugby’s own rendering of the scheme as viewed from near Poultney Bridge
(source: Bath Rugby)
Our own rendered interpretation of the Bath Rugby scheme as viewed from Grand Parade, just outside the Empire Hotel.
1. DECEPTIVE IMAGES?
The 3D visualizations would have us believe the new stadium to be a relatively unintrusive intervention. But such an impression depends to a significant extent on clever presentation techniques:
A) The few images of the building in context make it look smaller than it would in reality, due to the trick of distant views selected where tree cover happens to be greatest in combination with a wide-angle lens (which makes objects in the distance look smaller than seen with the naked eye). More telling views are not provided.
B) Large areas of glass under the roofs are not shown, as if the glass were invisible - which it never is. Glass tends to appear dark in sunlight, while light will flood out during darkness. The absence of glass and the distant view makes the project look hardly noticeable from Pulteney Bridge FIG.1. But from in front of the Empire building the West stand will in reality be pretty prominent. FIG.2
C) The close-up riverside view shows the bar / café terrace looking comfortably down on the riverside walk and the river, yet the proper architectural sections show the terrace to be sunk down behind a kind of bund – not such a happy experience.
Section cut presented by Bath Rugby shows the stadium terrace lower than the riverside walk. But this does not appear to match their visual.
(source: Bath Rugby)
2. OUT OF CHARACTER
The design, look and materiality of the new stadium would be not unreasonable in an outlying location. But in the centre of Bath - a historic city of unusual consistency - the new stadium will be out of place in all these respects, and so no less alien than is the unfortunate Hilton hotel of the 1970s. The project would improve on the unsightliness of the temporary stands, but its construction is to be similarly semi-industrial and mechanistic. In truth the scheme consists of a mid-to-low budget facelift of the existing structure, plus enhancements. But whereas the temporary stadium can be removed, a permanent building would definitively lower the tone of the whole area.
Design involves choices, and choosing a big rectangular box that does not flex with the site brings shortcomings
A. The long straight roofs are at odds with Bath’s animated roofscape, downgrading the charm of eye-level views, while catching the eye unfavourably from the hills around. Despite the importance of the stadium roof, as acknowledged in Bath Rugby’s text, no bird’s eye view is supplied. This may be because it wouldn’t look good, so we have generated a visualization for people to judge.
B. By running straight the West Stand creates a pinched riverwalk at the northern end, where its roof will loom ominously close to the river itself. FIG. 4
C. Similarly, seen from the Rec, the East Stand constitutes an unnaturally diagrammatic shape, overbearingly close to Johnstone St.
D. Both the East and West stands terminate in a surgical cut, exposing the simple engineering-like extrusions, like exposing guts to view. This architectural device became fashionable in the 1960s, but goes contrary to all the principles of the civic buildings round about.
Our own rendered interpretation of the Bath Rugby proposal shown from a bird's eye view.
Our rendered interpretation of the Bath Rugby Scheme as viewed from the far end of the Rec.
3. UNCONNECTED TO THE LEISURE CENTRE
Crucially, the proposals do nothing towards “Providing the opportunity for the Leisure Centre to be refurbished and improved”, as stipulated in BANES’ Placemaking Plan (July 2017) as a requirement for successfully developing the Rec. The greatest single blight on the Rec and this section of the riverside is indeed created by the current stadium and the 1970s Leisure Centre meeting each other back-to-back on an arbitrary boundary line, with no interpenetration. Furthermore, the ground floor of the Leisure Centre is taken up by parking, plant rooms and stores and so feels hostile to pedestrians, while its outdated budget design fails to do justice to the unique river front location. One of the biggest problems with these proposals is that they will consolidate this unhappy state of affairs.
Photographs of the spaces between the current leisure centre and the existing south stand of the existing stadium.
In summary, despite the well-intentioned efforts of Bath Rugby and their consultants, the proposals do not help the Rec and nor do they enhance the area. Rather than this scheme, it would be better for the city, its inhabitants and the majority of its visitors if it weren’t built at all, leaving the Rec green and open.
Alternatively, if construction is to happen it must truly enhance and fit Bath. To do this the urban ambition and investment needs to aspire to a comparable level of that which produced the highlights of this historic city.
AN ALTERNATIVE VISION
A proper, long-sighted, option for enhancing the Rec necessitates redeveloping the Leisure Centre together with the Stadium as a part of considered unitary masterplan. Such a masterplan should be designed so as to lend itself to the use of quality materials according to genuinely sustainable principles, in keeping with the spirit of place that people value in Bath. To the skeptical this might appear but an idle dream, but, though it would require knocking heads together and, yes, significant investment too, this should not be beyond a city of Bath’s stature.
We imagine things differently, simply by going back to first principles. First of all, why not make a stadium with a curving shape like a Colosseum, in sympathy with both some of the great-set pieces of 18th-century Bath and its Roman roots? This gets around the problem of the hard straight box-like forms compromising the subtle geometries of the city and intruding too close to the river, or too close to Johnstone Meanwhile an oval stadium will not hurt the eye when seen from high-level.
A comparison of the bird's eye views of both schemes.
A comparison of the two schemes as seen from Grand Parade, just outside the Empire Hotel.
A comparison of the two schemes as seen from the far end of the Rec.
URBAN PRINCIPLES AND CONNECTIONS TO LEISURE CENTRE
At the city scale, the breakthrough is to imagine how such a Stadium could fit with a new Leisure Centre so as to produce a functioning urban ensemble, including routes through the site and proper facades following the river at the southern end and along North parade, meeting at a legible corner. It is easy to see how lively recreational and retail spaces could be created with this kind of approach, augmenting the amenities offered by the new Stadium and the new Leisure Centre in their own right, so much so as to create a vibrant and commercially prosperous critical mass.
The six diagrams to the right attempt to illustrate the virtues of our alternative scheme over the standalone stadium redevelopment as proposed by Bath Rugby.
The images and diagrams of the Bath Rugby scheme as drawn up by our practice and presented here are based on the drawings and visualizations provided on the Bath Rugby website. While all attempts were made to make sure our images are an accurate representation of their scheme, some inaccuracies may have occurred in the process of interpreting the sometimes contradictory nature of the original material.
COUNTER - PROJECT
BATH RUGBY OFFICIAL SCHEME
Active Frontage (opportunity for commercial and public uses)
To conclude, these images evoke a completely different approach in terms of elevation, style, materials and detail, in part for the sake of heightening the contrast and in part to stimulate debate. Such matters concerning appearance – which to large degree must be subjective - should not, however, deflect from the core issue of urban experience. We contend there are several objective advantages of our scheme in terms of proper urban planning principles, principles that have a real, lasting and indeed vital effect on the quality of life, wellbeing and belonging.
At this stage we offer just a glimpse of what could be created, with the promise of more to come in the near future.
In this spirit we welcome your feedback! Such is the importance of the Rec and its environs that it deserves proposals, counter proposals and real debate.
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