Monday 25 July 2016

Poplar Baths - an art deco icon reopens

Public baths began appearing in cities in the UK during the nineteenth century. The stimulus for this was primarily a piece of legislation, the Baths and Wash House Act of 1840. It was enacted in response to a growing awareness of the importance of hygiene and exercise in promoting good health and the fact that working class housing generally lacked facilities to wash oneself or ones clothes. Several public baths constructed during the Victorian period still stand today although many of them are now disused or in poor condition. On a more positive note, several local authorities have begun to restore these architectural treasures and to bring them back into use. One such example is Poplar Baths in East London.

Elegant art deco staircase
The original Poplar Baths were constructed in 1852 and included first and second class pools, slipper baths (bath tubs) and vapor baths with separate provision for men and women. The building also boasted a  public laundry with washing, drying and ironing facilities. This must have seemed very luxurious and the height of modernity to Poplar dwellers during the 1850's many of whom were amongst the poorest Londoners.

During the 1920's and 1930's another round of building public bath houses and swimming pools took place again motivated by an awareness of the need to improve the health of Britain's poor. A number of iconic projects took place during this time including the Peckham Experiment on the opposite side of the Thames to Poplar. Poplar was again to benefit and the baths were rebuilt under the direction of Borough Engineer, Harley Heckford. Working with his Chief Assistant, H.R.W. Stanton, Heckford was to design the iconic building that dominates a particular stretch of East India Dock Road in today's London Borough of Tower Hamlets. 

The new baths were built in the art deco style from 1932 to 1934. The building included two pools, the larger of which would be covered over in the winter and used as a dance hall and cinema and for boxing and wrestling competitions. When covered, the hall could seat 1,400 people. The smaller pool remained open for swimming throughout the winter and as previously, health and hygiene facilities were provided. It is interesting that the local authority saw the equal importance of physical and cultural activity in improving the wellbeing of local people.

Lobby pillar
Staircase tiles and patterned floor
Sports hall
This part of London was heavily bombed during the Second World War and although not destroyed, the baths sustained damage that led to several years of closure before re-opening in 1947. Use appears to have reached a peak between 1954 and 1959 when over 200,000 visits to the facilities were made each year before a long decline set in, leading to closure in 1988. Apart from temporary use by a training organisation and occasional one off events, the baths stood unused for 28 years. English Heritage listed the building in 2001, awarding it Grade ll status but also placing it on the buildings at risk register.

Campaigners worked for many years to get the baths reopened and in 201 an announcement was made that the building would be brought back into use as part of a wider £multi-million development which would include a sympathetic extension to the building. Work on the restoration commenced in 2014 and was very recently completed.

Never having been inside, I was fortunate to get a tour of the building a few days ago. The brown and red brick exterior wrapped around a reinforced concrete structure hides some stunning internal art deco features. For me at least, the undisputed stars of the show are the staircases to the left and right of the main entrance. Fully tiled to shoulder height in blue, grey and black, and boasting steel balustrades, these staircases would not be out of place in a 1930's New York hotel or a Parisian department store.  The granolithic tiled floor is covered with a range of geometric patterns that begin on the lobby floor and continue to the top of the staircases. There is also one remaining deco style pillar in the lobby, examples of which can often be found in well preserved 1930's cinemas.

Decorative recessing in the sports hall
Former projection room
The former main pool area is now set out as a sports hall and although the original spectator seating has gone, the decorative stage remains with the crest of the old authority above it. The "whalebone" concrete hyperbolic ribs still stand and support the glazed roof that was revolutionary in the 1930s, admitting natural light to a public baths. In the new part of the building which houses two pools, the former "Turkish" bath has been re-created with a smaller pool and beautiful tiled, hollowed out pillars that house functioning showers. 

There are many other little features scattered through the building that show just how particular Harley Heckford and his team were back in the 1930's. These include crittal windows looking from the former office suite out over the sports hall and the openings through which films were screened from the projection room have been retained and the surrounds cleaned up. Some of the doors have beautifully angled handles, whilst gentle recessing has been used throughout as a decorative element. I also liked the not yet restored brown tiles at the upper levels, particularly where they curve at the doorways. It is clear that although Poplar was (and is) one of London's poorest neighborhoods, the architect and the authority believed that only the best design and facilities should be provided. not a bad philosophy.

The restored and extended baths reopen on Monday 25th August. Harley Heckford would be proud.

Surround of former stage
"Look up" - one of the two main stairwells.
Reconstructed "Turkish" bath
The new main pool

Thursday 14 July 2016

Picture Post 56 - The Majestic Theatre Singapore

Singapore has a reputation for being ultra modern with cutting edge architecture and skyscrapers dominating the cityscape. Whilst this reputation is much deserved, there is also another side to Singapore and it is easy to find examples of earlier architectural splendour. Not least amongst these is the former Majestic Theatre on Eu Tong Sen Street in the Chinatown district. 

Once Chinatown's most significant building, the Majestic still has an imposing presence on this busy street. The exterior is an interesting mix of Chinese and art deco features. Brightly coloured ceramic tiles frame the central element of the facade which is decorated with mosaic representations of figures from Chinese operas, Chinese characters, dragons and flowers. The metalwork on the glazing is also interesting and is similar in design to traditional Chinese screens.

The theatre was commissioned and paid for by Eu Tong Sen, a philanthropist and owner of rubber plantations and tin mines. Originally designed as an opera house, the theatre was a gift for one of his wives, a Cantonese opera singer. Not only did he pay for the theatre, he also formed an opera troupe for her and bought the rest of the street, naming it after himself. Sen engaged Swan and McLaren, the architects responsible for the Raffles Hotel to design his theatre. Work on the 1,194 seat theatre was completed in 1928 when the building opened under the name Tien Yien Moh Toi, or the Tin Yin Dance Stage. Cantonese operas were performed there until 1938 when the building was converted to a cinema and renamed the Queen's. This lasted until 1942 when the Japanese occupiers seized the building, renamed it the Tia Hwa Opera House and used it to screen propaganda films. 

In 1945, the Majestic Film Company took over the building, gave it its name and commenced screening blockbuster Cantonese films and although ownership was to change again in later years, it continued to operate as a cinema until closure in 1998. Today the Majestic is used as a retail market but the grandeur of the facade makes it easy to imagine how it must have been for opera fans arriving at the theatre in the 1930's.

Tuesday 12 July 2016

Chinese Baroque - beautiful shop houses in Singapore's Petain Road.

Shophouses can be found in most parts of the far east. Consisting of ground floor business premises with living quarters at the rear and above, they were normally built in rows or terraces. The ground floor is set back from the road with the upper story projecting forward, supported by columns to form a covered walkway. Earlier this year I was able to visit several shop houses in Singapore including a very special terrace in Petain Road, close to the Little India district.

The 18 terraced houses that form numbers 10-44 Petain Road were commissioned by businessman Mohamed bin Haji Omar and designed by British architect E.V. Miller who submitted plans to the Municipal Building Surveyor's department in May 1930. Haji Omar was also responsible for commissioning shophouses in nearby Jalan Basar whilst Miller usually worked in the completely different Bauhaus style. Until the twentieth century this area was semi-rural with many vegetable gardens. Streets were laid out after the First World War and named for people and places associated with the conflict. Haji Omar's development was realised in what became known as Petain Road, named for the French General who had been a war hero from 1914-18, but who became a notorious collaborator with Germany during the Second World War. Don't let the put you off. The terrace is one of Singapore's most beautiful and best preserved 1930's developments to survive until today. 

The terrace conforms to the usual shophouse design, including having a "five foot way" running its entire length. This is a sheltered walkway with a minimum width of five feet, designed to afford shelter from the rain and the extreme heat for residents, workers and visitors. Most of the terra cotta tiles covering the floor of the walkway are original.

The exteriors are covered in beautiful pastel coloured glazed ceramic tiles, imported from Europe and Japan and illustrated with peonies, tulips, chrysanthemums, birds and other creatures. The tiling continues to first floor level where pilasters decorated with floral motifs are complemented by the green and cream shutters. The terrace sustained some damage during the Second World War and in 1943 number 10 was the subject of an application for permission to carry out repairs. This time the plans were submitted by local architect Kwan Yow Luen and the occupying Japanese authorities granted permission to carry out the works. Luen was also responsible for designing several shophouses including in nearby Balestier Road. Over the following decades, the houses deteriorated until in 1979 there was a proposal to demolish the lot. Fortunately this did not happen and instead significant restoration was undertaken including replacing the many tiles that had been lost with replicas imported from Vietnam.

Today the terrace overlooks a pleasant green space and attracts many tourists, students and devotees of architecture who wish to see one of the best remaining examples of this style sometimes referred to as Chinese Baroque. There is an excellent book about Singapore's shop houses - Singapore Shophouse by Julia Davison, available to purchase online or from the National Museum.

You might also like - Picture Post 53 Singapore's Art Deco Gem - The Cathay Cinema and Tiong Bahru - Singapore's Modernist Housing Estate