Bird poop continues to catch my eye (although perhaps it’s better to catch my eye than to fall on me). We took the opportunity to tour the semi-derelict Govanhill Baths on Sunday 21 September (as part of the Doors Open Glasgow Festival).
The baths are the subject of a long-running community campaign following their controversial closure by Glasgow City Council in 2001. The closure of the neighbourhood’s only city-run sports facility (in a city with some of the worst health statistics in Europe, and in a district struggling with some of Glasgow’s worst slum conditions) caused one of the longest community occupations of a public building in British history – continuously from 17 March to 7 August 2001 – until more than 250 police officers forcibly ejected the protesters and the building was boarded up for good. The building has been closed since then, with a mounting local campaign gradually forcing the city council to accept that the building has a viable future as a community facility.
The baths opened for just one of the festival’s two days, with hundreds of local residents queuing for up to an hour to be shown the inside of the building. I, like many others, brought along a camera and, like many others, uploaded as many photogenic views as possible to my account on the photo management site Flickr.
A cautious but sensible approach to the problems of balancing health and safety requirements with the desire to show people three large, empty (and quite deep) swimming pools meant we had to follow a carefully marked path through the building. So don’t be surprised if my Flickr set of photographs from the day looks largely like those of everyone else who has uploaded their images of that day.
The tours had to move quickly so that the half dozen or so volunteers could go back to the beginning and lead another group through. Poetic (if saddening) glimpses of the once grand Victorian building after less than a decade of disuse and neglect were caught through doorways to our left and right. The building is vast – there are three pools, a large Turkish bath suite and a huge communal bathing facility upstairs. Right up until the building’s closure the Baths weren’t just used for swimming – many Govanhill residents came to the Baths to actually bathe in little bath cubicles. Many of them didn’t have the facilities at home for a proper bath or shower.
The best was, of course, saved until near the end, when the large pool was reached. With the exception of a small area of the balcony in this hall, the building is structurally sound and intact. A series of tests in the coming months will establish whether the pools are still watertight and work is progressing to develop a brief for the building. There is, as our guide admitted, almost too much space for the Trust to know what to do with. If I could find one criticism, it’s that the expensive design consultation commissioned by “experts” in this field of architectural practice appears to have been a wasted exercise. The documents handed to us as we began the tour were simply architectural plans with an invitation to write suggested uses in different parts of the building. If I have learned one thing in my modern post-feminist leftie architectural education it is that architectural consultation never produces useful results when you ask non-architects to read and amend architects’ drawings.
You can follow progress and pledge your support to the campaign with the Govanhill Baths Community Trust. It is looking increasingly conceivable that the baths will re-open with refurbished pool, spa, fitness, retail and even cinema facilities in the next decade.