‘The Rec’ Colosseum-like ‘rec’reate plans
The British studio Apollodorus Architecture has designed a Colosseum-like stadium in Bath (UK) as a response to a proposed redevelopment put forward by Bath Rugby.
‘dezeen’ stated that the Apollodorus Architecture proposed the redesign of The Recreation ground site in the center of Bath (UK), which is currently being redeveloped.
Apollodorus Architecture is an architecture studio specialized on classical and traditional design, based in North London, Highgate (UK). Its work is rooted in research, scholarship and the knowledge and experience of historic architecture, particularly that of the ancient Greek and Roman period and the Italian Renaissance.
The Bath Rugby is a professional rugby union club in Bath, Somerset, England (UK). They play in Premiership Rugby, England’s top division of rugby. Founded in 1865 as the Bath Football Club, since 1894 the club has played at The Recreation Ground in the City Centre.
The 14,509-capacity The Recreation Ground (commonly known as ‘The Rec’) is a large open space in the center of Bath, England UK), next to the River Avon, which is available to be used by permission from The Recreation Ground Trust for recreational purposes by the public at large but particularly the people of Bath and those living in the surrounding areas.
‘dezeen’ further stated that a final development brief was recently submitted for the project that has a rectangular shape and long, straight roofs, which Apollodorus Architecture argues are “at odds with Bath’s animated roofscape”.
Apollodorus Architecture’s alternative scheme, which was designed by the studio’s Director Mark Wilson Jones with Jakub Ryng (Architect at Apollodorus Architecture), would feature an oval shape that references Roman amphitheaters.
The studio believes this would merge more organically with the context of the surrounding City than the proposed stadium.
Jones said of the official Stadium for Bath proposal, “Architecturally, there is actually very little to speak of. The new design put forward by Bath Rugby is clearly an expedient budget solution. In some respects, this actually makes it more successful and more likely to secure planning than the club’s previous proposals for the site. But putting the architecture aside, our main issue with the current scheme is that by not engaging with the site in its entirety – that is, including the Leisure Centre – it would torpedo any possibility of a happier long-term future for the area.”
His studio, whose work is “rooted in research, scholarship and the experience of historic architecture”, has instead visualized an oval design that would have a capacity of around 18,000 – the same as the official proposal.
It believes this better adheres to Bath’s historical origins while being more fitting for the site itself, which has an existing Leisure Centre from the 1970s that is set to be refurbished and improved as part of the new plan.
Added Jones, “The key to unlocking the site’s potential is planning the stadium in conjunction with the Leisure Centre. Once we realized this, we settled on using an oval and not a rectangle for the stadium.”
This shape would also have the benefit of not creating any hard corners, he added.
Jones further added, “The Romans invented the ellipse or oval for spectacles, so the choice seems apt given the City’s Romano-British origins. An oval has less bulk than a rectangle serving the same capacity and no hard corners. The curving structure of the proposed amphitheatre can merge organically with its context, as do Bath’s Georgian crescents, softening the impact on critical views to and from the enclosing hills.”
As well as the stadium itself, Apollodorus Architecture’s counter-proposal – which it sees as both a theoretical exercise and a “provocation” – features a new Leisure Centre divided into two blocks.
It also envisions a new terraced riverfront and a collection of bars and restaurants, which would be located in the arena and the Leisure Centre. The new stadium and the surrounding buildings would be made from stone.
Continued Jones, “In the ideal world, we would minimize the use of concrete and rely on locally-sourced Bath stone. Contrary to what some people think, there is actually still enough of it in the ground for decades if not centuries.”
Wilson Jones, who is an architect and historian teaching 18th to 20th-century architectural history and theory, said that the Apollodorus Architecture is not dogmatic about the classical language and “can appreciate good contemporary buildings in the modernist idiom”.
He argues, however, that Bath is a “slightly special case. The City as we know it was built in a relatively short period of time, out of a uniform building material, following a particular strand of classicism. It has survived more or less intact despite various post-war attempts to bring it up-to-date with the so-called ‘Zeitgeist’ – a very illusory and largely propagandistic concept. It is, therefore, in the spirit of continuity and respect for Bath’s enduring built heritage that we have chosen to work with the classical language – while being quite aware that it would stir up a debate!”
The public response to the proposal has been “overwhelmingly positive”, Jones said.
However, he conceded a “very small number of architects” had reacted less favorably.
Commented Jones, “What will be interesting is to see how younger architectural professionals and students will react, for nowadays they tend to be much more open-minded than those over 35 or so -those who were taught, persuaded and sometimes inculcated with the seductive mantras of the hardline modernists who after World War II ran anyone sensitive to the lessons of history out of town. In a world that is rightfully becoming more broad-minded and tolerant of differences, the modernists’ puritanism when it comes to architecture often feels hypocritical and bigoted. However, to help those for whom the classical detailing may be an intellectual obstacle, our website also features a ‘stripped-down’ version of the scheme.”
Also in the United Kingdom, a neoclassical country house designed by Robert Adam (British architect) was recently featured, which will be “UK’s largest new home for over a hundred years”.
In an opinion reflecting on the continued debate between modernist and historical architecture Barnabas Calder (head of the History of Architecture Research Cluster – the largest architectural history research grouping in the United Kingdom) wrote that “both sides in the style wars are equally wrong”.
He argued that the squabble was an unhelpful distraction in the face of the climate emergency.
While architecture critic Robert Bevan argued that King Charles III’s (King of the United Kingdom) love for traditional architecture meant he is “entangled in the far-Right’s weaponization of architecture”.
‘APPOLODORUS ARCHITECTURE’ stated that the historic City of Bath in South West England is famous for the quality of its environment, with its classical architecture born in the Georgian period arranged as streets, squares and crescents nestling in a bowl of verdant hills. Just by the Centre, to the side of its River Avon, there lies, however, an open wound – a site of unfortunate structures disfiguring both the river bank and the open space of The Recreation Ground, compromising these assets while also thwarting connections between them.
The drawings and visualizations presented here imagine a different reality, a vision of how things could be. It is simply a piece of informed conjecture, a hypothetical ‘counter project’ that presents a fresh approach to the conundrum that the site poses in a different direction to the various proposals advanced over the last couple of decades.
‘APPOLODORUS ARCHITECTURE’ further stated that the shortcomings of the existing rugby stadium and the surrounding area are both obvious and well known, while the nature of The Recreation Ground (or ‘Rec’) is the subject of longstanding and ongoing contention. None of the intricacies need reiterating here, except those for the design firm can intuit solutions. The primary problem is poor connectivity with the rest of the town due to changes in level and difficult boundary conditions. These create practical challenges during matchdays, while relegating the waterfront to a somewhat desolate leftover area and disconnecting it from the amenity of ‘The Rec’. The current temporary stadium presents largely blank and unattractive elevations. This and the 1970s Leisure Centre meet each other back-to-back thoughtlessly. The latter with its ground floor taken up by parking, plant rooms and stores feels actively hostile to pedestrians. Furthermore, its outdated budget design fails to do justice to the unique riverfront location.
Unsatisfactory as this situation is, recent plans for the stadium risk making the situation worse in some respects. The design studio’s critique of the new scheme put forward by Bath Rugby in May 2023 can be found here. One reason is that they have so far treated the stadium on its own, and not in unison with the Leisure Centre. Irrespective of the look and condition of both the complexes, there will never be a satisfactory, let alone optimum, resolution for either of them as long as the incoherent nature of their junction persists.
The Counter Project
The counter projects come into being when a special place is so blighted or threatened that those who love it, be they architects, urban designers or community groups, can no longer stand by in frustration and impotence but feel compelled to envision something better.
Conceived by Apollodorus Architecture, the present counter project is both a theoretical exercise (a kind of design gym) and a provocation. The architecture firm seek to provoke conversations that might, who knows, lead to positive directions.
In being unfunded, the Apollodorus Architecture scheme necessarily remains at a conceptual, indicative stage. It has aimed to achieve a capacity of around 18,000 spectators, which is roughly in line with the previous schemes. However, there will be things that the design studio have missed or could not know, or that they did not have the resources to investigate. Nonetheless, the design practice trust that the inevitable faults of detail will not deflect anyone concerned with the future of Bath from engaging with the principles at issue. The proposals contain clues for an alternative approach capable of transforming a vexed but core part of the City in ways that fit its nature, ethos and heritage.
In terms of architectural form, the starting point for the stadium is the oval shape of ancient amphitheaters. The choice seems apt given the prominence of the City – then named Aquae Sulis – in Roman Britain. Moreover, as Bath blossomed in the Georgian period its development revolved around bold geometrical set pieces laid out by the English Architects John Wood the Elder, Thomas Baldwin and others: Queen Square, the Circus, the Royal Crescent, Pulteney Street, and so on.
It happens that an oval contrives to reduce the overall bulk of a stadium by comparison with a rectangle of the same spectator capacity. Rather than harsh straight edges confronting the waterfront on one side and the Rec on the other, the curving structure can merge more organically with its immediate context, as do Bath’s crescents, while softening the impact on critical views to and from the enclosing hills.
To the North, as an anchor to the adjacent urban fabric, the long axis of the amphitheater aligns with Laura Place and Johnstone Street. The scheme ‘plugs’ into the end of the latter, offering a street-level connection to the upper level of the arena along with a view into the body of the stadium and beyond. Here the opening of the façade is framed by two small towers. At the same time, there is a cascading staircase inviting people down to the waterfront and Rec, or up in the opposite direction.
In the distance, the tower of the Leisure Centre terminates the extended axis. At a height of 30 meters or so, it is visible from various locations in the town centre, and acts as an urban wayfinding marker, helping people navigate towards the complex of buildings.
To the South, a new Leisure Centre is envisioned in a contextual manner, enhancing pedestrian connections and making the most of the riverside setting. The complex is broken up into two main blocks, which helps preserve the smaller urban grain of the traditional City with its pitched roofs and parapets. Connected to the level of North Parade by a readily apparent stair, a moderately-sized square is created in front of the existing Pavilion, which would be retained. From here people can access the Leisure Centre (and limited associated parking), or progress through to the stadium or the Rec, where, as suits its constitution, facilities have been imagined which could cater to varied sporting activities and associated clubs and amenity groups.
Mediating between the stadium and leisure complexes, the curving street would be lined on both sides with shops, small cafés and reception spaces. On matchdays, these would cater to the rugby spectators.
Meanwhile, on the West side, a new terraced river front would extend all the way from the North Parade Bridge to the area of the weir. A wide array of bars and restaurants located both in the arena and on the ground floor of the Leisure Centre would animate this quarter, augmenting the amenity and commercial offer that Bath affords.
Note on Style
The greatest value of these proposals lies in the urban vision: The scale, grain, connections, views, frontage, mix of uses, and contextual respect that help pieces of a City to thrive by virtue of being legible to, and valued by, all who live, work and visit there.
Style is a secondary issue. But one must choose, not least because visualizations help as wide an audience as possible to understand the urban aspirations. The design studio shows buildings that are unashamedly classical, in part out of vocation, but mainly because Bath is at heart, a classical environment. The affection it holds for so many is a testament to the enduring vision of the founders of the Georgian City. In a spirit of continuity and respect for that vision, the project seeks to build on and emulate Bath’s heritage, where possible using traditional materials.
This is not to stop the architectural language moving on in response to technological challenges such as a tensile roof structure, just as Brunel (British Civil Engineer and Mechanical Engineer known for his groundbreaking designs and ingenious constructions) did in his own time. There are those who characterize continuity with historic style pejoratively as ‘pastiche’ (work of architecture), the theory being that this somehow detracts from the authenticity of the original pre-modern City. The answer for many is the ‘contrast and compare’ approach, meaning that the new should look modern and different to the old. This can work well for relatively small-scale interventions, for example, the Thermae Bath Spa (day spa in Bath, England) and The Holburne Museum (art gallery in Bath, England) extension. But large-scale developments are quite another matter, at an urban scale the ‘contrast and compare’ mode creates rifts that separate and divide rather than cohere.
While the outward appearance and quality of a building is integral to its success, one could easily reimagine the scheme in a more stripped-down fashion without such reliance on the classical orders. This could produce cost savings, and the recent techniques of building with stone using computer numerical control (CNC) cutting have proved surprisingly economical. The point is to avoid ‘value-engineered’ buildings in unloved styles, they make for very false economies. The results become outdated, unpopular and uneconomic, leading, as recent decades have shown us time and time again, to demolition and then further cycles of short-sightedness that make no financial or ecological sense. In the search for urban patterns that are human, sustainable and resilient, approaches that learn from tried-and-tested traditions have much in their favor.
A computer numerical control (CNC) router is a computer-controlled cutting machine which typically mounts a hand-held router as a spindle which is used for cutting various materials, such as wood, composites, metals, plastics, glass, and foams.
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