Archive for January, 2011

Medina House

Medina House is all that remains of the Medina Baths, a sprawling pool complex which occupied an enviable spot on the Hove seafront.

The Medina Baths were built to the designs of P. B. Chambers by the Hove Bath & Laundry Company in 1893-4 and graced two adjacent plots on King’s Esplanade, one either side of Sussex Road. The much larger plot to the west was dominated by laundry rooms and a 93 ft pool for men. The plot to the east contained a pretty building with a Dutch gable called Medina House which incorporated the 65 ft women’s pool. The pools were filled with salt water from the nearby sea.

By the 1930s, the Medina Baths were no longer fit for purpose and a replacement was built nearby in 1939. The new baths were called Hove Marina until they were requisitioned by the Admiralty upon the outbreak of war, at which point they became HMS King Alfred. Accordingly, the Medina Baths continued to be used into the 1940s.

The western section was demolished in 1976 and Bath Court now stands in its place. The eastern section survived though and Medina House was home to Monnickendam Diamonds from the 1940s until 1994. In a quite disgraceful manner, the women’s pool area was ripped apart in 2000 leaving an intricate faïence tile scheme exposed to the elements. Various outbursts calling for towers on the site over the years have come to nothing including a planning application for a ten storey tower being turned down in December last year.

I was introduced to Medina House’s tiles by local ceramicist Amy Smith who studied the history of the building while completing her Masters Degree in Historic Environment Conservation. Her report, Medina House and Former Turkish Baths Conservation Management Plan, describes the exposed faience (which consists of glazed ceramic tiles and terracotta) as being of “special interest” and making an “important contribution to the wider significance of the site”. The delightful cream, blue and brown tiles really have to be seen in the flesh. Many other features remain including stained glass, wooden paneling and a wide staircase.

In recent times, the King Alfred of course came very close to being demolished to make way for two huge towers. It still looks likely to be the case that Medina House will outlive the building that replaced it. If only a suitable use could be found.

Marshall Street Baths

A derelict Grade II Listed swimming complex on the Buildings at Risk Register, a disused warehouse and an eyesore of a car park were the perfect ingredients for a huge renovation project in the heart of Soho.

It took me several visits to fully appreciate the immensity of this labyrinthian site in one of London’s most lively areas. Much of what is new has been added on top of several existing buildings which have been pulled together into a single unified project. The work includes conservation too though and the architectural highlight is without doubt the newly-restored barrel-vaulted ceiling of the main pool.

The Art Deco Westminster Public Baths opened on Marshall Street in 1931 in a Roman Renaissance style with white Sicilian marble in the main pool and Swedish green marble on the walls. How it could be allowed to fall into disrepair I will never understand but it is easy to appreciate why 5,000 people signed a petition objecting to its closure in 1997. The pool is now open again to the public.

My first visit to the site took place in late 2009 and I recall walking across the highest point of what was then just a steel frame, marvelling at the views across the rooftops of Soho. It was just a construction site. I knew that things must have moved on when Sir Philip Green – and several burly minders – brushed past me as I walked in recently to see some of the finished flats. He had just given a presentation in the new events space apparently.

The 52 unit development, now being marketed as ‘The Regent Lofts & Penthouses’ (presumably due to its proximity to Regent Street), offers several different types of accommodation. Along with the aforementioned lofts and penthouses, there are terraces of ‘sky houses’ on top of the car park section. In fact, overhead images on the internet still show the old car park’s roof spaces. They are not houses in the true sense but they do have outdoor areas – without any road noise.  Given the choice, I would go for the one bedroom flat in the pool block which comes complete with a distinctive outdoor tower room overlooking London.

The completion of this scheme during a recession is some achievement. But the team behind this project is currently masterminding the rejuvenation of the Aquarium site in Brighton – an ambitious but necessary task also.

Inwood Developments

Sweet chestnut has been coppiced for centuries in Sussex for use as hop poles. But demand for hop poles is not what it used to be, which makes the springing up of a whole new industry around this wonderful material all the more welcome.

I recently saw coppiced sweet chestnut in use at the Grand Parade campus of Brighton University’s Faculty of Art on an extension that was constructed in 2007 to the designs of Ian McKay of BBM Architects. A series of pillars as thick as trees have been crafted from sweet chestnut where, on close inspection, each clearly consists of many smaller pieces of wood glued together. They were made by Inwood Developments. A trip out to their factory in Whitesmith near Lewes was the best way to learn more.

Inwood is headed by Nigel Braden, a pioneer in the production of high quality timber components from sustainable sources for the building trade. Sweet chestnut is a hardwood, like oak, and most important in this story is the way in which it responds to coppicing. A useful crop can be harvested every 25 years by chopping at ground level and then allowing new shoots to grow from the old roots.

All sorts of products are made in the factory including cladding, beams and, indeed, frames of whole buildings. One particularly fine example is the 200m long Treetop Walkway at Kew Gardens which features a sweet chestnut handrail by Inwood. Incidentally, this was designed by Marks Barfield, the firm responsible for the London Eye and the proposed i360. Nigel’s latest gadget is a new Grecon finger-jointing machine which is able to join together small pieces of wood into much longer lengths. The engineered look of the finished product is extremely attractive.

The whole process is remarkably friendly to the environment as carbon is essentially locked away in the wood for the life-time of the building which it serves. It is all carried out locally too so transport costs are low. Coppicing is a most appropriate use for land also. To top it off, there is little in the way of waste as the sawdust ends up as animal bedding and small off-cuts are burnt in a huge furnace to heat the factory.

Thousands of hectares of sweet chestnut are under management in southern England. This is excellent news for our local economy, the construction industry and the countryside generally.