A Roman rugby colosseum for Bath?

[All illustrations are visualisations belonging to © Apollodorus Architects Ltd]

Look, l have to be honest, l am not the greatest sports fan on Earth but l am well aware of what rugby means to Bath and the local economy.

Being interested in local affairs, l am also following the ongoing saga involving the local club’s vision for the future of its stadium at The Rec AND the views of those who oppose – not only future proposals – but the fact any permanent structure is there at all.

With this in mind l read with interest an email from a firm of architects – based in London (but with Bath connections) – who have come up with their own vision for the future of this particular part of Bath. One that would see the redevelopment of both stadium and Leisure Centre – and in a style that reflects Bath’s existing classical city-centre architecture and harks back to its Roman past.

Apollodorus Architecture Ltd propose a new oval-shaped stadium. In fact what you could call a mini colosseum.

An oval-shaped stadium with new classically-designed Leisure Centre attached.

I quote from their web page on the proposal ….”In terms of architectural form, our starting point for the stadium is the oval shape of ancient amphitheatres. The choice seems apt given the prominence of the city – then named Aquae Sulis – in Roman Britain.” 

Below is a two-page summary of their proposals. It includes a link to their web page on the subject – which illustrates their ideas in much more detail.

“The longstanding question of whether to build a permanent rugby stadium on the ‘Rec’ is topical once more now that Bath Rugby has published yet another proposal.

The existing stadium and adjacent areas have obvious shortcomings that are well known to residents of Bath. First is the poor connectivity with the rest of the city due to the arbitrary and impenetrable boundaries where the temporary stadium and the 1970s leisure centre meet, thwarting meaningful relationships with the open green of the Rec on one side and the river Avon on the other. Second, both complexes are tired and visually unfortunate, while offering nothing like the level of public amenity that the location merits. Third, neither suits the character of a historic city famed for its beauty. 

The new Leisure Centre beside the Pavilion.

Unsatisfactory as this situation is, Bath Rugby’s proposals threaten to make these problems worse. They would become permanent rather than temporary. To develop the stadium on its own, and not in tandem with the Leisure Centre, would in effect sink any possibility of a happier long-term resolution for the whole area. Furthermore, the images that the club has published to date are in some respects deceptive, giving the impression that their scheme would have fewer negative effects than in reality. A detailed critique of the Bath Rugby scheme can be found here

Our architectural practice has been independently preparing a Counter Project for some time (before the current proposals in fact). Initially we simply sought to satisfy a ‘what if’ curiosity. But as ideas took shape, we found ourselves wondering if they might warrant sharing. While our website shows more detail, this summary aims to outline in words only an alternative vision – a vision of how things could be if only there were sufficient will, investment and collaboration. We float our ideas in the hope that they may encourage citizens and stakeholders to grasp just how much really is at stake, and that there exist approaches capable of making not only this site but our cities in general more human, more desirable and more successful.

The view from the Rec

We are not anti-rugby, nor anti-development. Indeed, we are supportive of both – provided proposals do justice to the site, and its setting in a World Heritage city that is loved by many more than just its lucky inhabitants. 

The new river bank with North Parade Bridge in the distance

Our plans show the potential for securing lasting value, both for Bath Rugby and for Bath as a whole. One key to unlocking the site’s potential is planning the stadium in conjunction with the leisure centre. Another is using an oval and not a rectangle for the stadium. The Romans invented the 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 (we aim to roughly match the 18,000 of Bath Rugby’s latest scheme), and no hard corners. Rather than a structure with straight edges fronting the river and the Rec, a curving structure can merge organically with its context, as do Bath’s Georgian crescents, softening the impact on critical views to and from the enclosing hills.

Entry to the stadium from Johnstone Street.

To the north, the arena would align with Johnstone Street, connecting with it on the upper level. A cascading staircase built off the Grade-2-listed President’s Lounge would invite people down to the waterfront and Rec (or contrariwise). People could see into the pitch and to the leisure centre beyond, which could have a tower terminating the vista. Its visibility would help people navigate towards the new quarter.

The leisure centre to the south is envisioned in a contextual manner, enhancing pedestrian connections and making the most of the riverside. A readily apparent stair would connect North Parade with a new square in front of the Pavilion, to be retained. From here people could access the leisure centre (and limited parking), or progress through to the stadium or the Rec, where facilities could cater to varied sporting and youth activities. Mediating between the stadium and leisure complexes, a curving street or arcade would be lined with shops, cafés and reception spaces. To the west a new terraced river front would be created. Here bars and restaurants would hum with life, augmenting the amenity and commercial offer that Bath affords, attracting people and so too revenue seven days a week.

The chief value of this vision lies in its urban aspects: connections, scale, grain, views, frontage, mix of uses, contextuality and materials. Everything that helps a city to thrive. Style is a secondary issue, but, in the spirit of continuity and with respect for Bath’s heritage, we have opted for a classical architectural language. There are those who would call this ‘pastiche’ while favouring a ‘contrast and compare’ approach, by which the new strikes a different note to the old. This can work well for small-scale interventions (for example Thermae Bath Spa and the Holburne museum extension), but large-scale developments are quite another matter. At an urban scale the ‘contrast and compare’ approach produces rifts that separate and divide rather than cohere. On the other hand, Southgate illustrates how even somewhat clumsy allusions to traditional architecture and urbanism can help integrate a large scheme. And it’s possible to do much better!

The proposed access to the new stadium from Johnstone Street

Working with tradition while using natural building materials including stone that can be locally sourced, is, significantly, bound to produce more sustainable buildings, ones that will last long and age well. Aside from incorporating renewables into new buildings (which is often little more than ‘green-washing’), true sustainability stems from creating beautiful and adaptable environments that will outlive present needs and contingencies because people identify with them and value them. Only addressing the Rec holistically can produce a truly viable future to serve Bath and its residents well for decades if not centuries. Short-termism is not just short-sighted – it is unsustainable.”

The company – which specialises in classical and traditional design – has Bath connections. It’s director, Mark Wilson Jones, also teaches history, theory, conservation and studio at the University of Bath, Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering, a department which has come first in one or more of the main university ranking tables for the last twelve years.  For the Bath Preservation Trust he served on their planning committee and as trustee.

While Polish-born Jakub Ryng studied architecture at the Universities of Bath and Cambridge.

I understand the company sent a summary version of the scheme to Bath Rugby Club and had a subsequent conversation on the subject.

I have approached the club for comment.

1 Comment

  1. Plans look enticing, but no indication of cost. I suspect it would be unaffordable.

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