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Swimming Baths, Clerkenwell

Part 2 Project 2001
Toby Shew
Oxford Brookes University Oxford UK
The elements in this design are intended to give an impression of danger, heroism, theatre and suspense. The building is centralised around a high diving board surrounded by a screen wall that is punctured so that outside viewers can see what is happening. The diving board acts a fulcrum for the hero or heroine involved. Only the brave would dare try to dive from this height, and their activity thus becomes a performance for the street and other would-be swimmers.

The preparation for the dive begins in a changing room that is translucently obscured from the street. The path of the diver cuts through the building, and up onto a glass walkway that gives an opportunity for contemplation and reconsideration. As they walk to diving board, they are on display to watchers and doubters. At the end of the walkway the diver becomes suddenly exposed, a step is taken, and he or she becomes aware that the building is no longer protecting them. Looking down, the earth is cut away, revealing a deep pool of water several meters below. Passers by start to watch as the tension mounts.

There is only one way back, and one way to glory. As he or she dives, they appeared to be sucked back into the world. Indeed, the diver becomes part of the building once again – for one small moment, they had escaped its rules, just as the act of diving escapes the confines of ground and place. Passers-by wonder if they themselves could have made such a dive. Inside, the hero or heroine knows what they have become.

The site of the Clerkenwell pools has thus become a communal place, a place to watch and enjoy. Cuts through the building fabric reveal swimmers in the pool below, and at night, the glowing sunken pool provides jewel-like areas of light in the city darkness.

Toby Shew


This project is a highly sensuous design. He started from subtle, tantalising sketches, and progressed to a project for a swimming baths that revels in its tactile and experiential nature. The building rubs against a grainy part of Clerkenwell, next to a vast post office, and tucked away down some tempting alleyways.

The materials in the design vary from the extremely rough and tough (concrete, cor-ten steel, etc.) through to the smooth, glittering and bright (glass, tile, water, etc.) It is a scheme that enjoys such contrasts in building materials in their proximity to the semi-naked flesh which parades around a swimming baths.

The changing rooms set the scene. Opening out on to the street, the cubicles are made in translucent glass so that you can get just a hint of people disrobing behind them, but now and then there are sudden flashes of clear glass in order to draw the urban spectator into the building.

The central part of the design revolves around the process of diving into the outdoor courtyard pool with a surrounding wall pierced by careful incisions. It displays the influence of Luis Barragan, but turned up many notches on the thrill-o-meter scale. The would-be diver walks along a long internal corridor until they arrive on a springboard that seems to be only a little bit above ground level. But in fact the pool into which they dive has been cut well down into the earth below, and so the spatial expectations set up by the interior sequence are confounded.

Intense, well thought out and memorable, this scheme offers a powerful and convincing image of what an unapologetic urban building might be. The digital renders evoke the feeling of being in a confident design. Toby’s scheme lies at the point where the hard city meets the soft city of the flesh, and it fully enjoys the pleasures that such encounters can produce.

Tutor(s)

2001
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