Scrubbing up nice

From bath-house to leisure complex, Tim Ronalds Architects has transformed Ironmonger Row Baths in a reviving corner of London into a modern facility while retaining all of its original atmosphere and style

The bold new cast-stone entrance sits at the join between the original building and its late 1930s extension.
The bold new cast-stone entrance sits at the join between the original building and its late 1930s extension. · Credit: Morley von Sternberg

It’s always a pleasure to investigate a fine building by unfamiliar architects. I’d long admired the inter-war Italianate palazzo of  Ironmonger Row baths in Islington, set back behind the gardens of St Luke’s church on Old Street with its fluted-obelisk tower by Hawksmoor. But it was only when visiting the building with Tim Ronalds – architect of its immaculate new £16.5m overhaul – that I learned the name of its original father-and-son designers, Alfred and Kenneth Cross. Kenneth later became president of the RIBA – 1956-58. When the then London borough of Finsbury commissioned the firm, it was a specialist in public baths – which in those days  primarily meant places to go and wash rather than swim. 

Preserved original bath cubicle – still in working order.
Preserved original bath cubicle – still in working order. · Credit: Morley von Sternberg

‘The bath cubicles have been removed and replaced with a fitness centre, filled with serried ranks of alarming-looking machines for gym bunnies and iron-pumpers. Ronalds looks mildly disapproving’

The first phase of building,  opened in 1931, is a load-bearing brick structure by Alfred with a heavily rusticated base, tall gabled roof and a curious deep double cornice. Conceived as a public bath-house and laundry that was also a war memorial – the ablutions of the living would somehow commemorate the sacrifice of the dead – the nobility of the structure belied its humble function. Inside were a public laundry and children’s nursery on the ground floor, and two levels of bathroom cubicles above: 41 on the first floor, 41 on the second, laid out around light wells and segregated for men and women. The plumbing was formidable: these baths were designed with enormous taps and plugholes so as to fill and empty very quickly. A cumbersome steel-panel water tank on the roof – now carefully preserved along with the original boilerhouse chimney, since these are both skyline elements of the listed building – kept the water flowing. You were allotted only a few minutes for your bath, marked by a timer dial on the door. A centrally-placed wooden lift took towels to and from the laundry downstairs. Ronalds has kept just two adjacent cubicles – one still with working bath, the other as a tiny exhibition room, both used as historical teaching aids for local schoolchildren. The towel lift cabin still exists, but is static: at some point in its life a towel chute was driven through it. All the other bath cubicles have been removed and replaced with a fitness centre, filled with serried ranks of alarming-looking machines for gym bunnies and iron-pumpers. Ronalds looks mildly disapproving. ‘There’s a sprung dance floor under those machines,’ he says of one section: he’d initially envisaged a more aesthetically pleasing form of exercise there. 

Retained and upgraded, the main swimming pool hall needed keyhole-surgery structural work.
Retained and upgraded, the main swimming pool hall needed keyhole-surgery structural work. · Credit: Morley von Sternberg

Seven years after this first phase, following his father’s death in 1932, Kenneth Cross added the much larger swimming pool extension in a slightly plainer but closely related style (‘like a Jesuit convent’, says Ronalds) – but steel-framed beneath the brick. The 100ft  pool still has Kenneth’s gently barrel-vaulted roof with a central glazed light slot and his steep bank of high-backed teak spectator seating to one side. Ronalds’ team found that the pool tank itself was fine for modern purposes, but modified it to provide easy access for the less able, and raised the water level flush with its edges. The original children’s pool beyond has been rebuilt as a larger training pool with adjustable depth. Above this,  where a return run of seating has been removed, is a dance-exercise studio. The Turkish baths that Kenneth built in his new basement have in part survived – plunge pool, marble massage slabs and hot rooms – in the much larger and very upmarket new spa that has replaced it, running beneath both phases of the building.  With its range of exotic treatments it is clearly aimed at the nearby City and Hoxton hipster market rather than the working classes it used to serve.  

Far removed from the original working class ambience of Ironmonger Row, a wealthier clientele  is being targeted by the spa.
Far removed from the original working class ambience of Ironmonger Row, a wealthier clientele is being targeted by the spa. · Credit: Morley von Sternberg

This building’s second phase marked a point of stylistic overlap for the borough – at exactly the time Cross was building his neoclassical pool extension, only half a mile away Lubetkin and Tecton were building the pioneering modernist Finsbury Health Centre, for the same client. There are other oddities, as Ronalds points out: the elder Cross had used artificial stone for his dressings, while Cross the younger reverted to real stone: there is a point on the lower cornice – continued identically from one phase to the next, father to son – where it slightly changes colour and material.

At the head of the existing stairs, the original towel lift is preserved, though not in working order.
At the head of the existing stairs, the original towel lift is preserved, though not in working order. · Credit: Morley von Sternberg

‘At exactly the time Cross was building his neoclassical pool extension, only half a mile away Lubetkin and Tecton were building the pioneering modernist Finsbury Health Centre, for the same client’

Ronalds, of course, is better known for his theatres and concert halls, from the careful refurbishment and extension of Frank Matcham’s Hackney Empire to the recent completion of his Colyer-Fergusson music building at the University of Kent.  He seems mildly surprised that he was selected for the Ironmonger Row project ahead of pools specialists, putting it down to his restoration experience on the Hackney Empire.  But he wisely teamed up with consultant pool expert, architect Robin Wilson. Ronalds is also, as it happens, an architect very local to the area, being based a few streets away on the top floor of a typical Shoreditch industrial building which is otherwise occupied by the offices and food smells of the Jamie Oliver restaurants empire.Stranger still, it turns out that his studio used to be the production centre of the Spitting Image satirical puppet show – the rubber caricatures were made upstairs and filmed in the basement. Puppeteer Roger Law is Ronalds’ landlord.  The Ronalds studio certainly keeps the spirit of making alive, being full to bursting with working models, the most recent – including one of Ironmonger Row – done in card at a floorspace-consuming 1:20 scale. 

A fitness centre now occupies the gabled top floor.
A fitness centre now occupies the gabled top floor. · Credit: Morley von Sternberg

The baths are in an odd, in-between  neighbourhood, with buildings of various scales, dates and functions, plus patches of green space,  joggled together more randomly than usual, even for London.  Bombing and slum clearance have left their uneasy mark. Ronalds’ big move is to shift the entrance round to the open south side of the building, inserting his new foyer into the slot where the two original phases meet. The first thing you notice on entering is a long horizontal window to your left, revealing the main pool in action. A seating area is placed here, below the spectator seating, where some changing rooms used to be. The second thing you notice is the moulded terrazzo reception desk and freestanding storage wall, as if extruded upwards from the flooring. Ronalds has used good hardwearing materials similar to the public areas of the original building – terrazzo and hardwood (though sustainable iroko rather than the original teak). 

Part of the new spa in the basement incorporates this plunge pool from the existing Turkish baths.
Part of the new spa in the basement incorporates this plunge pool from the existing Turkish baths. · Credit: Morley von Sternberg

The stately staircase core to the building with its ornamental balusters remains: a new lift has been inserted into a former light well. Rich colours on the walls graduate from deep and dark in the Stygian basement to light at the top.  To a large extent, it’s not so much what you see with this building, as what you don’t: all the modern services that had to be threaded through a listed building to provide the levels of heat, humidity control and air quality now demanded for what is – in the original first-phase building – now an utterly different function to its 1931 purpose. All the insulation, all the keyhole-surgery removal of corroded steel columns and replacement in concrete, one by one, under the stern eye of English Heritage. 

Hard-wearing terrazzo gives a tough yet warm feel to the entrance foyer.
Hard-wearing terrazzo gives a tough yet warm feel to the entrance foyer. · Credit: Morley von Sternberg

‘To a large extent, it’s not so much what you see with this building, as what you don’t: all the modern services, the insulation, all the keyhole-surgery removal of corroded steel columns and replacement in concrete’

Ronalds speaks highly of his client, the London Borough of Islington. Although it demanded a design-and-build contract for price certainty, it made sure there was very little scope for contractor variation from the architect’s designs.  And the refurbished building benefits from a new combined heat and power system (its timber-clad generating station concept-designed by Ronalds) which connects  various public and private housing blocks and the refurbished baths. This clearly helped the building towards its ‘excellent’ BREEAM rating.

This was a fantastically fiddly, demanding job by any standards. Yet Tim Ronalds and his team – especially his co-director Adam Goodfellow – have made a logical progression of spaces and uses through this historic building, making a leisure centre to modern standards while preserving key elements of the old. This project is good, modest, capable architecture that is a beacon of enlightened re-use.

A noble building for a humble function: Alfred Cross’s original bath house (foreground) and Kenneth Cross’s pedimented pool addition, both now reinvented by Ronalds.
A noble building for a humble function: Alfred Cross’s original bath house (foreground) and Kenneth Cross’s pedimented pool addition, both now reinvented by Ronalds. · Credit: Morley von Sternberg