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Renewed Guernsey lido mixes Aussie cool with Scandinavian hygge

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Words:
Isabelle Priest

Local practice DLM rebuilds a 1930s changing facility to give La Vallette Bathing Pools a welcoming and inclusive building that is backed by the community

You can wait decades for an outdoor sea pool and then two come along in as many years. This one, turning the corner of the bay peninsular along from St Peter Port in Guernsey at La Vallette, features a new building by young local practice DLM Architects, and is the first that offers less in the way of soggy sandwiches and more of a slice of Aussie cool. In summer, as the year-round turquoise waters heat up, perhaps it will even beat those down under, mixed in as it is with Scandinavian hygge. The other, Scott Whitby Studio's Jubilee Pool.

The Guernsey project's story exhibits the many strands that are coming to define the renaissance in lidos around the British Isles. These are Victorian bathing inlets that were enclosed by Edwardians, made more majestic in the 1920/30s, then fell into disrepair with the advent of cheap European holidays. Yet they engender an ardently loyal community of enthusiasts that makes them sensitive to change. But that community support can also be an advantage with many now being rescued by grassroots action using social enterprises and charitable trusts, as well as lots of fundraising.

The States of Guernsey owns the La Vallette site and also owned a previous changing-room building, added in the 1930s, that also included a kiosk with limited operational hours that had been let out. It was not an attractive business proposition, however, with a constant churn of tenants. The upkeep of the four pools themselves was left to volunteer regular swimmers repairing the sea wall with buckets of sloshing hand-mixed concrete.

View from above, the larger ladies' pool (now mixed) and the children's pool to its left. The new La Vallette Bathing Pools building sits on the mound behind.
View from above, the larger ladies' pool (now mixed) and the children's pool to its left. The new La Vallette Bathing Pools building sits on the mound behind. Credit: Peter Landers

The current project came out of a government competition to propose ideas to regenerate six sites around the island, including the bathing pools, tourist information centre and a former defence bunker. The eight submitted bids for the lido ranged from proposals for new parasols put forward by a group of regulars, to complete demolition in favour of building a large resort hotel.

A group of islanders who combined to assemble the successful bid invited DLM to be part of a committee of participants from all sectors who would cover all aspects of the project: retail, sports, education, community arts, with DLM responsible for design and construction. The local authority selected the team on the basis of its public-private community proposal – one of the first, if not the first, of its kind on the island.

The challenge was how to win the backing of the existing hardy bunch of swimmers – a gaggle of approximately 600 people who had all at some point been issued with a key to the changing rooms. Among their concerns were whether the pools would continue to be free, whether they should stay open throughout the works, the style of the building, and that any hospitality would be expensive or take the form of a fancy restaurant. All they wanted was a kettle to make a cup of tea after a dip like before. ‘Any change can be worrying,’ explains DLM director David de la Mare. ‘The pools are magical. Most people in Guernsey learned to swim here.’

DLM won around the public with a design that raised a new building out of the old, essentially making it a retrofit, and transforming it to be more welcoming and inclusive. The team saw the potential of the building to be a year-round destination and starting/ending point to explore and enjoy the whole headland.

  • The community pavilion sits at an angle the rest of the facade to capture the views out to sea as well as those back to the town.
    The community pavilion sits at an angle the rest of the facade to capture the views out to sea as well as those back to the town. Credit: Peter Landers
  • At the entrance approach you are greeted by three routes; a ramp to the ground floor level cafe, elephant steps beside the terrace or a pathway down to the pool.
    At the entrance approach you are greeted by three routes; a ramp to the ground floor level cafe, elephant steps beside the terrace or a pathway down to the pool. Credit: Peter Landers
  • La Vallette Bathing Pools, Guernsey - the view from the sea and ladies' pool.
    La Vallette Bathing Pools, Guernsey - the view from the sea and ladies' pool. Credit: Peter Landers
  • The community pavilion at night within its landscaped setting, accessed internally but also externally by a separate outdoor stair to give flexibility.
    The community pavilion at night within its landscaped setting, accessed internally but also externally by a separate outdoor stair to give flexibility. Credit: Peter Landers
  • The cafe terrace at ground floor level looks out over the shipping lane and other islands of the archipelago, including Sark.
    The cafe terrace at ground floor level looks out over the shipping lane and other islands of the archipelago, including Sark. Credit: Peter Landers
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The building’s footprint has consequently remained largely the same. Only the pools are listed so the first moves were to strip back the building to blockwork, raise the boardwalk to improve accessibility and reinforce the walls. The centre of the plan was also opened up to create a new circulation core, as well as a sheltered nook as a changing space for swimmers out of hours.

Above, the existing kiosk was demolished and replaced by a bigger volume, excavated 4m into the rear mound. Visitors arrive from the lane behind at this level via a ramp or elephant steps that double as a place for pep talks or for teenagers waiting to be picked up. Between the levels, the façade has been rationalised by padding out areas to correct the previous contours and make a uniform, flat, seamless surface.

At the upper level sits a new 40m2 community pavilion and events space set back to prevent it from overshadowing the pool and turned to face it more directly while looking back along the bay towards the town. With its own terrace, wrap-around gardens and external (as well as internal) access, up there the pavilion feels almost like a standalone building – perfect as a space to hire for seminars, yoga classes, small parties etc.

Visually, the lower level sits on the original granite retaining wall, the ground and first floors sitting on two smooth-faced lighter-coloured concrete rafts, which get slightly thinner as you go up the building. Between the exposed concrete slabs, there are continuous elements that draw the composition together; the narrow vertical bar cladding, anodised aluminium windows and the two recessed loggias on the lower and ground floors.

Yet there are also differences that give character and dynamism to each level. On the lower ground, the cladding is black; above it is oak coloured. Balusters on the lower and ground level run horizontally, whereas at pavilion level they are vertical. The terrace on the upper level, meanwhile, is open air. Existing steps and a new winding ramped accessible path to the pool climb about the rock around the building, helping its layers feel lodged and natural to its setting. Both the concrete and cladding pick up the various tones of their context and backdrop. Swimmers enjoy warming up on the new granite bench along the poolside lower wall that soaks up the heat of the sun in the mornings.

Detail of the concrete slab structure and the oak-effect cladding at the cafe entrance. Credit: Peter Landers
View out to sea from the upper roof terrace that surrounds the community and events pavilion. Credit: Peter Landers

‘The hardest part of the project,’ says de la Mare, ‘was the legal aspect. The kitchen is run by the community trust. Part of the negotiation was that the States of Guernsey should be responsible for maintaining the pools – not locals.’

There was a point during the build when the building would be accessible but none of the pools would be. An £80,000 additional sum was substantially raised by another local, Adrian Sachet, via a 24-hour swim in one of the pools, swimming a total of 64km. This is just part of the community story. In order to access £300,000 of state funding, the trust had to raise £1 million. The upper pavilion was sponsored by a single donor. The flooring inside was donated by manufacturer Karndean, whose managing director lives nearby. The biggest fundraising programme, however, was an initiative for individuals, groups, businesses and organisations to buy a strip of the black cladding for a minimum donation of £500. DLM bought a CNC machine and has administered the engraving of the strips with the donors’ names. All possible 360 strips have been sold with 80 left to do.

There has also been a huge collaboration project too. The accessible benches are made out of the same black cladding material and were built by inmates of Guernsey Prison. Meanwhile, the planting was carried out by GROW, a charity for people with learning disabilities.

Back inside, in the café, the community feel is very much alive on a chilly 7°C Friday afternoon. The interior continues the exposed concrete of the exterior with ply laminate joinery as well as mirrored surfaces that reflect the view of Sark and the busy shipping lane on the back wall for all to enjoy. Fin panelling gives texture and softness to the space, hiding acoustic insulation behind. The servery retains some of the kiosk feel of its previous incarnation, with an outdoor part on the terrace for people to queue for a quick ice cream. The best element, however, is the inglenook fireplace with woodburning stove in the second section of the café. A stack of stools allows people to pull up a seat and warm up after a cold swim, and is suggestive of being somewhere social and communal. It provides an unexpected cosiness, more commonly found in Scandinavia, reminding me in particular of a sauna called Löyly on the seafront in Helsinki.

  • The La Vallette Bathing Pools cafe servery and bar seating.
    The La Vallette Bathing Pools cafe servery and bar seating. Credit: Peter Landers
  • The mirrored back wall of the cafe so no visitor can face away from the sea views.
    The mirrored back wall of the cafe so no visitor can face away from the sea views. Credit: Peter Landers
  • The undulating ply fins on the cafe walls add sculptural detail as well as disguise acoustic insulation.
    The undulating ply fins on the cafe walls add sculptural detail as well as disguise acoustic insulation. Credit: Peter Landers
  • One of the two renewed changing rooms.
    One of the two renewed changing rooms. Credit: Peter Landers
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There are many tricky details to the building, including those preventing cold bridging. One other key aspect was that the building, while highly exposed to the elements, had to be low maintenance as those costs would come out of revenue that could be spent elsewhere. For that reason, although the cladding looks like timber, it isn’t. The dark material is made from notoriously difficult-to-recycle black household plastic, originally developed for fish farms. The lighter material is a latex oak-effect printed composite, both recycled and recyclable. ‘This is sustainable through its robustness,’ says de la Mare.

La Vallette’s revival is Guernsey’s latest exciting asset. What adds to the brilliance of this building and place is not just that it is clearly a well-loved and great place for a swim, now year-round. It’s how it came together from this partnership of energetic and imaginative local people as one of the island’s first public-private initiatives. At 14.5km wide, Guernsey is a small place. On arriving at the airport to the sight of many fossil-fuel cars, you can’t help feel that if such thinking were applied to other areas – buildings but also infrastructure, energy and industry – the island could be so much more. Maybe even Guernsey as an exemplary eco-paradise.

Key data

  • £1.5 million total contract cost
  • £4,545 GIFA cost per m2                                               
  • 330 GIFA in m2                                               
  • 320 pieces of engraved cladding around the outside.

Credits

Architect DLM Architects
Acoustic wave design Oliver Toussaint
Client Vive La Vallette LBG
Structural engineer Dorey Lyle & Ashman
M&E consultant Henderson Green
Landscape consultant Auburn Gardens
Project manager Paul Salazar & Chris Croft
Main contractor RG Falla
Other consultants GeoMarine, Swan Joinery, Salisbury Glass, Sarnian Roofing, Stainless Steel Fabrication, Channel Welders
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