Addressing both the issue of London's limited use of one of its greatest assets and a resurgent public interest in outdoor swimming, Studio Octopi's Thames Baths proposal looks set to take a significant step towards realisation. We spoke to the firm's founder, Chris Romer-Lee
With London's existing lidos back in vogue, new outdoor swimming projects such as Ooze Architects' freshwater pond at King's Cross (featured in Icon's July issue and in the programme of talks at our House of Culture during Clerkenwell Design Week) coming on stream and renewed emphasis on creating access to the capital's waterways, Studio Octopi have picked the perfect time to launch the campaign to realise their own Thames Baths proposal.
Imagining a future in which a series of floating freshwater pools are moored along the banks of the Thames, Octopi's project has rapidly evolved from a piece of paper architecture into a community-driven social enterprise with growing public support. Icon talked to studio founder Chris Romer-Lee about the travails of turning fantasy into reality.
ICON: What was the genesis of the Thames Bath project?
CHRIS ROMER-LEE: In August 2013 I was on holiday with my family in Zurich. We quickly discovered the lake, which is accessible right from centre of the city, and all the beautifully designed swimming facilities at the water's edge; these seemed to really engage the full range of the city's demographics. Serendipitously, while standing looking at this scene I received a message suggesting that Octopi submit an entry for a competition that was being held as part of the forthcoming Richard Rogers retrospective at the Royal Academy – the speculative proposal was to be based on ideas of how to better utilise the Thames. The two things just aligned.
ICON: What was your original proposal and what convinced you to develop it beyond the exhibition?
CR: What we submitted was an outdoor freshwater swimming facility raised on stilts, located near Blackfriars Bridge. It was projected ten years into the future, after London's "Super Sewer" had been completed and hence the river water certified swimmable. The pools were placed at the high-tide mark so that the water would be replaced on a daily basis.
We delivered our presentation at the RA and were happy that we'd wrapped things up successfully, but almost immediately people started contacting us enthused about seeing the baths become a reality. Then the press took an interest in the idea and it began to gather its own momentum.
ICON: Does the Thames have a history of recreational swimming?
CR: After returning to the office from Zurich to do some initial research I came across Caitlin Davies, the author of the recently published Downstream: A History and Celebration of Swimming the River Thames. We learnt a lot of salient information from her, for instance that the last floating bath in the Thames was in 1875 up by Charring Cross, with river water heated to 85 degrees. Such things were very fashionable for about a decade before people actually took to the Thames itself, holding endurance races along its length. This all fed our imagination and convinced us that what seemed like a totally ridiculous idea was actually grounded in a real history.
ICON: How has the design progressed since the RA exhibition?
CR: We've simplified the project, imagining a floating pontoon that would separate the pool water from the Thames so that the baths can be delivered regardless of the completion of new sewer infrastructure. So many people have reached out to us with offers of support and guidance, which has really fed into how the proposal has developed.
A particular case in point was when we were contacted by someone from a big London ad agency: his vision went far beyond our own singular intervention to suggest how the bath concept could be scaled, to think where and what impact such facilities could have at other points of the river and, indeed, rivers throughout the UK. Suddenly the whole project expanded, extending its remit to think more broadly about how communities interact with waterways while also becoming a viable business opportunity. If we can get one bath established it can act as a proof of concept for this wider scheme.
ICON: Where can and can't such structures be placed?
As you can imagine, in a position such as at Blackfriars on a hot day there will be very high demand. We have been asked several times why we haven't designed the baths at a larger scale to accommodate more people, but there are limitations on size, such as keeping the river navigable, being able to find feasible mooring spots and so on. Instead of a few larger baths we're suggesting having multiple smaller venues. You can have one on the South Bank, and another at Blackfriars, and another a City Hall, forming a network of pools. All our designs are based on a standard six-lane community pool, which is 25m x 15m.
Proposal for baths at Blackfriairs
ICON: How does the business model work?
CR: It's going to be run as a Community Interest Company, an arrangement created by the last labour government that's somewhere between a charity and a limited company – a form of social enterprise. When you setup a CIC you have to stipulate what its objectives are and the funds generated by the project are then locked to those stated aims. Directors can't just come along and skim off cash. Tickets will be price-matched to those of existing local community pools, ensuring that everyone can afford to use the baths.
ICON: Why do you think London's relationship to its waterways has become so devalued?
CR: The river used to be a massive source of income in terms of the trade it used to carry and the London Port Authority. As that has declined, it has diminished to little more than a piece of transport infrastructure at best and an obstacle at worst. Recreation has been the absolute last thought in terms of the Thames' uses, added to which my parents generation where convinced that the water was fetid and that apprehension remains.
ICON: How is the water filtered?
CR: The system isn't finalised, but broadly speaking we're looking to use reed beds to process the water, which will be taken from the river and put into a closed-loop system of natural plant filtration. The water can even be warmed without disturbing the ecosystem, which will allow us to keep the structure open for much of the year. The reed beds serve a dual purpose, however. One of our very first design intentions was the reintroduction of vegetation to the banks of the Thames. You have to stop and really consider how strange it is that there is no plant life visible along the river, but because of the way it has been developed the current flows so quickly that nothing can take hold. The reeds and rushes we're proposing might look alien at first but are in fact completely natural.
ICON: What role do you see these structures playing within the local community?
CR: I think that the issue of provision of public space is prominent in people's minds; this is true everywhere in London but especially along the river's edge, where private enterprise is slowly gobbling up the river walk, gating off areas and restricting direct access to the water. It's really an infringement of civic rights. The baths could be an extension of the river walk, allowing people to get even closer to the river than they could previously. There will be a publicly accessible deck where, regardless of whether you're interesting in swimming or not, you'll be in proximity to the water.
ICON: What's the roadmap following the completion of the Kickstarter campaign?
CR: The Kickstarter funding is intended to keep things running up to the initial planning stage and while we arrange the requisite extra finances. We're looking to realise the baths project using a tripartite approach, combing crowdfunding, corporate sponsorship and the support of public bodies. We're not going to sell ourselves to the devil to bring the baths to fruition, so on the corporate end it would have to be a sponsor sympathetic to our goals. What we need to avoid at all costs is creating something that, in terms of controls and corporatisation, is akin to spaces like the Sky Garden at 20 Fenchurch Street or Paternoster Square.
Studio Octopi will be participating in a panel discussion at Design Factory at Clerkenwell Design Week today. You can contribute to the Thames Bath Lido kickstarter here