Arlington Baths Club was built during 1870–1871 and is a fine example of Victorian Italianate Architecture. It opened on 1 August 1871 as the Arlington Swimming Club. Along with bicycling and tennis clubs it formed part of that developing interest prevalent at the time of extending a general state of economic health outwards towards a complementary form of physical well being.
The Club was built in and formed part of the Charing Cross area created as a vital node in the westward development of the city. Built largely in the traditional tenement idiom, albeit with some extraordinary flourishes (the famous Charing Cross Mansions are just down the road), this area quickly attracted an important concentration of the type of citizens of whom the membership of the Arlington Swimming Club was to be made up.
The Club was therefore created on the doorstep of its membership, the great majority of whom lived within easy walking distance. From this emerged the traditions of the Club. The membership appeared first thing in the morning before going to work and returned in the evening after work before going home in a regular twice daily ritual.
The Arlington was the first swimming club in Glasgow. A replica of Arlington Baths was built soon after in London, whither the drawings of the Arlington were spirited sometime towards the end of the 19th century, never to be seen again. This building was bombed during the Second World War and was never rebuilt. The building of the Arlington Baths coincided with the implementation of the first of the Public Health acts in 1870 and was considered by some to be the precursor to the growth of public bathing in the UK.
The idea however, was anything but new, and goes back to the Roman Baths – on a more modest scale naturally. The bather graduates unhurriedly through a series of rooms offering a choice of experiences from the tepid to the very hot emerging finally into the swimming pool. The experience is both physical and social, as the user moves leisurely from one temperature to the next so he also moves from one conversation to the next. The idea of a relaxed combination of physical exercise and sociability lies at the heart of what the founders of the Club set out to achieve, and it remains the dominant idea behind the Club to this day.
The building was originally designed by John Burnet, the father of the better known Sir John James Burnet, and for this reason usually known as Burnet Senior. Burnet seems to have been a reticent man, although a fine architect, and something of that combination of reticence and delicacy can be seen in his original design. This was for the part of the building containing the swimming pool, the Senior and Junior baths and the Senior and Junior changing rooms which now forms the northern part of the building.
As originally designed by Burnet the building was single storey and conceived as a kind of theme and variation on the idea of subdivision by twos and threes. Thus the main facade onto Arlington Street was modulated by means of two pavilions, located at either end of the building with the centre marked by arched windows arranged in groups of threes. The effect is that of a restrained and modest Classicism, more rural than urban in its nature, well proportioned and pleasing in an unpretentious way.
To describe the design as Palladian would perhaps be to stretch a point too far – although Palladio did draw his influence from Roman Farm buildings. Nonetheless italianate influence is obvious not only in the balance of the elements but also in the use of a "piano nobile" by which the main spaces are built on top of a semi basement level containing smaller spaces servicing the larger accommodation above. One entered the building at the higher level through the arched entrance in the middle of the facade, coming straight out onto the transverse axis of the pool. From this point the emphasis of the building swung through ninety degrees onto the main axis of the pool hall along which the other accommodation was laid out. The hall itself reinforces the symmetry of the building by its imposing rhythm of exposed wooden roof trusses supporting a simple pitched roof lit by strips of glazing.
Burnet's intention was therefore to create a composition organised symmetrically, that is by halves, but relieved by a sub-division by threes. The counterpoint between the rhythm of twos played off against the rhythm of threes gives the building its richness.
Also well worth mentioning was the plenum system used to heat the building. Whether by accident or design, this system, in which heated air is passed through the building by convection via ducts built into the fabric, owes its origins to the Roman hypocaust. It was a system ideal for use in the saturated atmospheres of swimming pools because it encouraged ventilation. It created much comment at the time and featured in contemporary textbooks. The original building is now protected as a category A listed building.
Not long after the building was opened, in fact barely before Burnet had time to vacate the site, a Turkish Room plus ancillary accommodation was added in 1875, allowing the membership to increase to six hundred. The Turkish Room – which lies at the back of the plan and to the north of the original building, so that it would have been visible from the street – is justly well known. A Glasgwegian homage to the Alhambra, consisting of a large square room, heated to high temperatures by plenum with tiled walls and floor and a beehive shaped roof studded with small star shaped windows glazed with coloured glass, sufficient only to light the space dimly. Originally there was also a fountain in the centre, no longer there. In an atmosphere of sepulchral calm the bathers recline on benches along the walls sweltering in superheated seclusion. No talking is allowed within the space.
By 1893 more space was again needed. Andrew Myles (architect) was employed as architect (Burnet was 79 by this time) to add an additional reading room and billiard room. These were added to the south end of the existing building in the form of a single storey "piano nobile" with service spaces below, it extended the facade of the building southwards across the front of the Turkish Room. It would also have created the space now occupied by the Entrance Hall. Myles did a workmanlike, and it has to be said, sensible job, in simply copying the details of the original building onto his extension; nonetheless, a change in eaves level marked it as a separate construction.
This added a second storey to Myles' extension, and presumably, he was again the architect. The intention was more radical. The entrance was moved from the centre of Burnet's building to what now emerged as a kind of interregnum between the two phases of the street frontage. This was developed separately as an entrance hall leading to a grand staircase, which in turn led to a new reading room and billiard room, plus other administrative spaces, on the first floor. Myles emphasised this bay by means of a triple arched entrance and steps with a five arched loggia above, both of which have an exaggerated nervous verticality about them which is at odds with the quietness of Burnet's facade. Coincidentally, the entrance to the Western Baths, built round about this time, is very similar.
Above the remainder of his extension that is, to the south of the entrance bay, Myles simply extended the building up to form an elegant space with exposed roof trusses and glazing at the apex.
By now, Burnet's simple single storey building must have looked strangely out of sorts, with a two storey extension attached to the end of it.
In 1902 a further increase in membership convinced the Club that a further extension was necessary. Thus order was restored, in some form at least, by the addition of a storey to the street frontage of Burnet's original building. This did not extend the pool hall itself, but simply the bank of rooms which lay between the pool hall and the street.
For this purpose the Club engaged architect number three, (or was it four?), by the name of Benjamin Conner, who extended the front wall of the original building directly upwards to create a new larger billiard hall and long gallery – now used as a gym – lit by a regular rhythm of single windows. Again exposed timber roof trusses and partial roof glazing are used to good effect in these spaces.
In this way, over four phases and a period of thirty years, the Arlington Baths Club grew by a process of accretion. The result is a haphazard eclecticism which gives it a strangely modern, or, rather, post modern, appeal.
All four phases speak with their own voices, but the result is more of a conversation than an argument. Burnet's original building can still be seen and appreciated; its companions – with the exception of the entrance bay – do treat it with the deference it is due. The subsequent architects did generally take sufficient notice of what was already there to ensure continuity in what followed this is particularly true of the combination of simple well proportioned spaces, exposed roof trusses and excellent levels of daylighting which are something of a standard throughout the building.
Since the work carried out by Conner no further large scale additions have taken place to the fabric of the building. Numerous smaller scale alterations have taken place. Internal alterations carried out during the late 1960s and 1970s in order to comply with fire safety legislation have been particularly damaging to the interior because they destroyed the clear axial relationships which originally tied the various spaces together while in addition, preventing the free circulation of air on which the building fabric relied for adequate ventilation. While the compartmentalisation of the interior may have improve the membership's chances in a fire, the effect on the internal environment as a whole has been disastrous.
The survival of the Arlington Baths and its continued ability to attract new membership in the face of modern competition is a testament to the quality of its building and its builders. The unique achievement of the design has been its ability to foster that elusive quality of "club" which, while it may be difficult to define, is nonetheless sensed and recognised as immediately now as it was one hundred and thirty seven years ago when the original building was first built. The building is therefore a vital asset to the Club.
The Challenge facing the Club now and in the future is how to manage and develop these advantages, which, in the short term, means how to repair the damage done to the interior by compartmentalisation, while simultaneously complying with current safety legislation.
In respect of the interior design, this means a return to the axial linking of spaces combined with the three part arch motif at the junctions of main spaces, as originally conceived, in his clear sighted way, by John Burnet.
These objectives are technically feasible and can be achieved in a way compatible with current safety legislation. They form the core of the ongoing renovation programme with which the Club has been engaged for the past few years. In this the Club acknowledges the invaluable assistance of the Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic Scotland and the Glasgow Development Agency, without which this work would simple have been impossible. With the original full sized pond, and the trapeze juxtaposed with the fully equipped modern gymnasium, the Arlington Baths club provides a blend of exercise and relaxation.