A review of Ashton Old Baths feels like writing about two different buildings. Firstly, there is the Old Baths itself, a grand redbrick structure built in 1870 which stands proudly in Henry Square, and has been recently transformed from an empty shell into functional space once again.
The former Turkish baths had been abandoned and derelict for almost 40 years before it was bought by developer PlaceFirst in 2014. Through a mixture of European, Council and Lottery funding, £4m has been spent clearing the undisputedly beautiful building of a serious pigeon infestation and renovating it back to its former glory.
Credit to the Victorians that they would create such a piece of architecture to house their public baths; it certainly puts our boxy 21st century attempts at leisure centres to shame. Inside, the restoration has retained some original features which bring playful elements to an otherwise dark and stately interior, such as the faded and peeling “no running” signs on the walls, and beams for the old diving boards.
The second aspect of the project, and the raison d’etre for all that public money to restore the building, is a self-contained, free-standing wooden office pod, installed in the centre of the grand former bathing hall. The pod is made up of 6,000 sq ft of offices aimed at digital and creative businesses, supported by 4,000 sq ft of meeting rooms and break out space, including a terrace on top of the pod which provides close up views of the roof’s oak beams.
While the whole point of the pod is that it makes minimal impact to the listed structure it sits in, that means it seems an incongruous addition to what is otherwise a very traditional, historic space. In shape, it is reminiscent of a boat that has docked for repairs, and is set to be released ship-shape to sail the shores of Ashton once again. The pod feels transient, and its pairing with the Old Baths is less of a symbiotic relationship, and more a slightly uncomfortable cohabiting.
In fairness, the pod isn’t occupied yet, and once it’s full of digital and creative hipster types, as hoped, the whole place could feel a lot more integrated. They’ll be having craft beer parties on that terrace before you know it, although despite being indoors it does get cold in the winter, so they may need to wear gloves.
Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce is due to announce the Building of the Year at its annual property and construction dinner on Thursday 20 October
The judging panel consists of Steve Burne of AEW Architects and vice-president of the Chamber; Phil Cusack, chairman of the Chamber; John Atkins, Atkins Property; Jill Bancroft of Brown & Bancroft; Dan Crossley from WHR Property Consultants; Liz Everett of Seddon; Duncan Firth, Walker Sime; Stephen Gleave of Turley; Stewart Grant of Grant Associates; Karen Hirst from Eric Wright Group; John Marland, Bruntwood, Prof Peter McDermott, University of Salford; Nancy McGuire of Addleshaw Goddard; Ian Powell of Pinningtons; Andrew Turner of Interserve; David Williams of Turner & Townsend; Steve Williamson of F Parkinson; and Graham Wilson from Parker Wilson.