Moseley Road Baths is one of the finest buildings in Birmingham.
Designed by the architects William Hale and Son for the city council, and opened in 1907, it is listed by English Heritage at Grade II*, which puts it among the top six per cent of all listed buildings in the country.
It is the only working pre-war baths to have this status. However Simon Inglis, author of the English Heritage series of books on buildings for sport and recreation, Played in Britain, describes it as one of the most internationally significant buildings of its type anywhere in the world.
Yet only one of its two pools is in working order and much of the rest of the building is empty and neglected. Rusting and leaking rainwater pipes on its elaborate terra cotta frontage grow lichen and plants grow out of the brickwork.
The city council plans to permanently close the building for swimming in September next year and has no plans either to repair the building or to convert it to new uses. The baths are on English Heritage’s national list of Buildings at Risk.
How can it be that such an internationally important building in Birmingham is so scandalously neglected? The city council claims it is simply a lack of money: with all the other economic pressures it currently experiences, it cannot afford to maintain and run the baths.
The previous Conservative/Lib Dem city administration commissioned a conservation plan for the baths from historic buildings experts Rodney Melville and Partners and the Birmingham Conservation Trust. It had discussions with the Heritage Lottery Fund about a grant for phase one of restoration, although a grant was never confirmed. But it would have required a matched funding input from the council. The Labour group says this money is not available although the opposition claims that it was allocated while they were in power.
Birmingham has traditionally given a low priority to the care and continued use of its historic buildings. It has always been more impressed by the new and the novel, however shallow or transient they may be.
I don’t know whether this philistine tradition started with Herbert Manzoni, the city planning officer from 1935 to 1963, but he certainly exemplified it.
He said in 1957: “I have never been very certain as to the value of tangible links with the past. They are often more sentimental than valuable... As to Birmingham’s buildings, there is little of real worth in our architecture. Its replacement should be an improvement... As for future generations, I think they will be better occupied in applying their thoughts and energies to forging ahead, rather than looking backward”.
I saw this attitude at first hand in May 1984, when the Victorian Society was advocating the incorporation of Bingley Hall into the proposed new International Convention Centre. Bingley Hall was another internationally important Birmingham building: the world’s first purpose-designed exhibition hall, predating the 1851 Crystal Palace by a year.
But in a meeting at the Council House, Councillor Bernard Zissman, then Chair of the Convention Centre Subcommittee, told me: “I hope to be able to drive the bulldozer into the building myself.” A pathological hatred of the city’s history, and a delight in its destruction, is perhaps extreme, although not unusual – I have seen other examples. More typical is simply the lack of knowledge and interest which leads to the same sorry outcome.
There are exceptions to neglect, of course: the excellent restorations of the Town Hall, Soho House and the Museum and Art Gallery are some prominent civic examples. But too often Birmingham, in both public and private sectors, is typified by an absence of interest and respect given to its architectural heritage.
The Friends of Moseley Road Baths, a group founded in 2006, is campaigning against the baths’ closure. (I declare an interest, being a member). The Friends love the building’s architecture and the particular pleasure which the interior’s Edwardian ambience brings to the experience of swimming there.
But the group’s bottom line is the continuation of swimming: it is not interested in any future for the building which does not contain swimming. In this, it is supported by the philosophy of English Heritage and government advice on planning: the best use for a redundant building is the use it was originally designed for.
The continuation of swimming does not exclude other additional economic uses for the building. There is a lot of unused space which could be devoted to complementary uses both beneficial to the community and income-generating. There are many skilled architects who could deliver this brief while respecting and maintaining the unusually intact original features of the interior.
Last month Birmingham Civic Society announced a public competition it calls “Re-imagine”. It is inviting people to propose creative ideas for the re-use of five buildings in Birmingham which it describes as being at risk. (One of the five, the 1974 ex-Central Library is more than at risk – it is on Death Row, awaiting execution). This competition is to be welcomed, being in opposition to the wrongheaded idea that historic buildings that have lost their use are disposable and in support of the more enlightened idea that they represent useful resources which contribute to a civilised community.
Four of the five buildings are redundant and empty: the ex-Central Library, the ex-Methodist Central Hall, the ex-Curzon Street Station and the ex-Golden Lion Inn in Cannon Hill Park.
These are in need of new economic uses: they are never again going to contain librarians, Methodist ministers, train passengers or beer-drinkers. Unfortunately, the fifth building is Moseley Road Baths, which is not redundant and not empty. Its inclusion in the competition is an ill-advised decision by the Civic Society, which was taken without consultation with the Friends of Moseley Road Baths.
It will only give encouragement to those in the city council who are determined to see the building closed and the council relieved of the responsibility of owning such a wonderful piece of civic architecture.
* Joe Holyoak is a Birmingham-based architect and urban designer
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