Friday, October 16, 2009

Not Suitable for Miners

It is a truth considered practically self-evident that modernist architecture was always an imposition on the proletariat. It might occasionally be embraced by Labour governments or Communist councils but, we are led to presume, given a genuine democratic choice ordinary folk would always choose something rather more homely. Now, at least one reason why this is largely accepted is because of the obscurity of competing examples. Looking at architecture from the inter-war years, 'classical' modernism appears confined to factories, luxury flats and private houses, with a few more populist outbreaks at the seaside, in the cinema or on the London Underground. However, among the most prolific patrons of Modernist architecture in those years were the Miners Welfare Committees, who built according to some estimates hundreds of pithead baths, most of them paid for by the miners themselves, rather than by the pit owners - and almost all of them have been demolished as part of the attempt to obliterate any record of mining from the British Isles.

They often feature in histories of Modernism in Britain, but less so the further away from the event. So my 60s Pelican History of English Architecture gives them as much prominence as the contemporary tube stations and houses, while Paul Overy's recent Light Air and Openness, a history of Modernism's hygiene fixation, mentions them only in passing, as if to do so would destroy the thesis of Modernism-as-imposition and suggest that, perhaps, people preferred not to be covered in muck. So, I've been trying to collect photographs and information on these (along with similar stuff on the architecture of the Co-Op societies, for the purposes of the Ingsoc book, which I intend to write eventually). This is a bit of an undertaking, as only a handful are listed, and those are derelict. Some of these pictures are from this website, courtesy of Chris Matthews, and some more from here, courtesy of Anne Ward. Here you can see the effect on the miners' architects of everything from Gropius' Labour Exchange and Bauhaus buildings in Dessau, to moderne cinemas, to the more obvious presence of W.M Dudok, used out of choice, making a specific statement of modernity in an area all to often reduced to Hovis adverts. All of these should be presumed demolished.

Meanwhile, there's an exploration of the listed, derelict Lynemouth Colliery Baths here and a 20th Century Society piece on one in the Forest of Dean here (thanks to Nemesis Republic for these). In both cases any trace of streamlined forms, light/air/openness and optimism have been long since gutted, in a building form so specific and in areas so far from being metropolitan that they are practically immune from being Urban Splashed. So we have an entire building type, one which contradicts much of the official history, either completely obliterated or rotting away.


Blogger Nemesis said...

Lynemouth: a few pics

There may be some goodish news for those, eventually, although how much of the interior will remain I don't know.

From the SAVE Buildings at Risk Register entry (for which I took the pictures above, which you are welcome to reproduce,and look better with a bit of editing):

The Pithead Baths are a striking example of modern movement architecture, built in 1938 by FR Frizzell to serve the now closed coal mine. The building is typical of many buildings from the 1930s with low lying streamlined blocks and large expanses of windows divided by numerous glazing bars. The tall central tower has a curved glass projection to one side which contains a spiral staircase. The interior of the building is white tiled with a single band of red running along the top. The shower area in the building consists of an in-going (dirty) and outgoing (clean) entrance and the locker rooms have slatted steel lockers and polished metal mirrors.

There was a scheme drawn up for the very careful dismantling and susequent rebuilding of Pithead Baths, bringing tham near the site of the colliery museum. At present the baths are divorced from the other colliery buildings, and this move, though controversial, could have given the building a good new use as part of the museum. Unfortunately there was not enough funding available and the plan was shelved. The building is standing empty and securely boarded up and presents an interesting challenge to someone with an imaginative new use. However, there is some talk of a business park being planned in the surrounding area. This could affect the setting and possible uses of the building, and SAVE is concerned that unless something is done soon, the baths could meet with a tragic end.

10/2008: Good news from the Lynemouth Colliery site - English Heritage and the owners are looking into commissioning a feasibility study examining possibilities for a conversion to a new use. Furthermore, the wider site in which it is located will soon be the subject of a planning application - this should hopefully have positive benefits and perhaps act as a catalyst towards a solution.

Peter Rogers
Conservation Officer
Northumberland County Council
County Hall
NE61 2EF
Tel: 01670 534059

Last Updated: 8th September 2009

4:32 pm  
Blogger Nemesis said...

The previous comment link should read, of course,

and I should proof read what I write. :-)

4:37 pm  
Anonymous seier said...

these buildings are beautiful and the way britian deals with its modernist heritage is complex to put it mildly.

had the structures you show here been built in germany and scandinavia, they would be famous. in england too.

8:05 pm  
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flickr seems to have some photos:
I like this one:

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