Published  04/10/2007

A cold bath

The new debate about the ancient, enlightened city of Bath has been precipitated strongly and positively by design critic and author Stephen Bayley, and none too soon. The city fathers have turned down an excellent building project for a new school of design, sponsored by global star industrial designer James Dyson, and designed by super-architects (and twice Stirling Prize winners) Wilkinson Eyre. The proposed new school offers ancient Bath a dramatic injection of transnational participation. This is not, fathers, about tourism for the coffers, but about a major injection of enterprise: funding a college which will accept several thousand students (many from overseas) in 26 workshops, supported by a museum, a library, and cafeteria with staff offices for 30 lecturers. This would all be accomodated within a six-storey building, connecting with the river Avon below on ecologically sound reasoning. The site, on South Quays, has been host to a Victorian facade of l9th century Florentine memory, much favoured by English Heritage and also by Marcus Binney, President of SAVE Britain's Heritage. The tripwire here for architect Chris Wilkinson has been the reputation of his 19th predecessor on the site, Thomas Fuller, who emigrated to Canada to design the Ottawa Parliament building. That is enough reflected glory for Bath, and to ring fence South Quays. A strong body of supporters for the Dyson/Wilkinson Eyre scheme has built up, mostly individual names with personal links with Bath. Has Bath's ethos and culture changed much in half a century? The cultural isolation of the city had, in the postwar period, dismayed the brilliant English architectural writer and critic Philip Morton Shand, responsible for the establishment of key links between British modernist architects and Walter Gropius and Alvar Aalto from Europe. Transferred to Bath for wartime service, he found he was desperately cut off in the postwar period from the revival of culture spreading across Europe. Bath left him cold too.

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