Overlooking a rugby game in Bath (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Buildings are storytellers

Civic architecture should be more than functional

There are many reasons the city of Bath welcomes over six million visitors every year — boutique shopping, luxurious spas, Jane Austen — but the city is best known for its sumptuous Georgian and Roman architecture. Now, however, a war for the architectural soul of Bath has been declared and the battlefield could hardly be more appropriate: Bath’s new rugby ground.

Bath Rugby Club has sought to expand its stadium for some years now. The land poised for redevelopment — the Old Recreation Ground, known locally as “the Rec” — had been the subject of numerous legal disputes. Recently, the Club’s ambitious plans to increase the stadium’s capacity by nearly a quarter, in order to house 18,000 fans, were finally greenlit. In the wake of the Club’s legal victories over dissident residents, the crusade against the stadium has instead become one of aesthetic taste, concerned with heritage and conservation.

Last month, London-based firm Apollodorus Architecture revealed a classically inspired counter proposal to the Club’s design, more in keeping with the surrounding environment. The official stadium design by architecture firm Grimshaw Global achieves the admirable feat of being both sleek and stocky. A giant rectangle, this hunk of steel and glass is yet another predictable example of neomodern functionalism that increasingly threatens to be our era’s dominant architectural legacy. Simply close your eyes and imagine any nondescript sports stadium built over the last two decades, and you’ll probably come close to the spiritless — and dare I say, ugly — construction I describe. Bath Rugby has hailed the design as “iconic”, but one could expect to see such a frontage on an upmarket Odeon or Picture House cinema.

The proposed design is functional, yes, but it is mute

Why should people outside of Bath — and those with no interest in rugby — care about this stadium? Matters of taste aside, whether you love or whether you loathe functionalism in architecture, civic buildings ought not to be merely practical or operational objects. These are places that add real societal value to communities, that play a part in shaping a city or town’s sense of identity. They should reflect back at visitors the story of their origin and purpose. They ought to communicate with surrounding structures whilst possessing a unique language of their own. In short, they should be steeped in symbolism. Buildings make life richer when they are thought-provoking. Civic buildings are often amongst the largest and most important or emblematic in a city. Does it not follow, then, that we should take more care than usual when constructing them?

This is the most depressing consequence of Bath Rugby club’s proposed design and of this style of architecture more generally: since there is nothing symbolic or particular about the style of the building itself, its meaning is obscured. From the exterior façade alone, you would not recognise it as the new home of the blue, black and whites, nor even as a public arena for sport. The Victorian aesthete and critic John Ruskin famously declared that architecture’s two functions were “acting and talking”. What does this type of building say? It is functional, yes, but it is mute. It is an empty husk, a big fat nothing.

For late conservative thinker Roger Scruton, architecture also possessed a “syntax”. He was right to point out that this language should be informed by a building’s immediate neighbours: buildings that stand entirely alone when it comes to style “cannot be stitched into the urban fabric, but [instead] form blank detached surfaces”. Bath Rugby’s new stadium would do exactly that.

Credit: https://grimshaw.global/projects/sport/bath-rugby/

Take, by contrast, the classical counter proposal: the stadium’s shape is oval instead of rectangular, an obvious nod to the amphitheatres of classical antiquity and to Bath’s world-renowned Roman inheritance. This is the city once known as Aquae Sulis. This kind of architecture doesn’t just speak, it roars: the cheers of Bath’s rugby fans would reverberate back through millennia. Where possible, the arena would also be constructed using locally sourced, traditional materials that would blend in with the city’s picturesque Georgian landscape. Not only is this the more harmonious option, it also tells us something about locality and about what makes Bath distinctive. Only the laziest architects have no appreciation of regionality.

Those set to approve these planning proposals would do well to remember that Bath did not become the UK’s only city (in its entirety) to achieve UNESCO world heritage status on account of its homogenous glass skyline, but because of its warm, golden-hewed stone and celebrated Palladian symmetry. Recent fears, that a major housing development on the site of the city’s former gasworks could see Bath lose its world heritage status, fortunately led to a revision in plans. As the only city in the UK to have its architectural lineage globally recognised as its defining feature, it is shocking that the new stadium design feels so insensitive to this rich history. Bath should heed the fate of Liverpool, where construction of Everton football club’s giant 52,888-capacity stadium on the cherished Bramley-Moore Dock resulted in UNESCO striking the city from its honoured list.

This battle of blueprints is, in part, a resurgence of the quarrel between the ancients and moderns. This kind of binary is unique to Bath, where heritage is of paramount importance to the city’s identity. It goes without saying that old is not always better than new. Cohesion and narrative in architecture trump any false dichotomy between historic and contemporary.

This will be yet another lost opportunity for British architecture

Further afield, the dynamic 2016 extension to the Tate Modern (itself a converted power station) is just one success story of cohesive civic architecture. A gesture of continuity, this extension was named the Switch House after the part of the power station it was built upon. It follows the form of a truncated pyramid that almost looks sculptural. The latticed brickwork is in keeping with the colour palette of the power station, which means it doesn’t look out of place. Still, the Switch House has a dazzling texture that tells a story entirely its own. Both segments of the Tate Modern work together but are also iconic in their own right.

Or take Coventry Cathedral. After substantial bombing during the second World War, it was rebuilt in the mid-1950s by modernist architect Basil Spence. Its story is one of resurgence and perseverance: Spence deliberately chose the same distinctive red Hollington sandstone that had been used in the construction of the old cathedral for his new structure, thoughtfully uniting past and present. The ruins and the surviving mediaeval spire stand in harmony with the cathedral’s contemporary elements, a joint symbol of unshakeable foundations across the centuries. The building also tells the story of new beginnings and experimentation, of looking hopefully to the future. It includes mesmerising stained-glass windows by the abstract artist John Piper, an avant-garde sculpture by Jacob Epstein depicting St. Michael’s victory over the Devil, and a gigantic modernist tapestry by Graham Sutherland that hangs above the altar. Coventry Cathedral is proof that paying due reverence to the past does not prevent a building from also representing the here-and-now.

Credit: https://www.apollodorus.uk/project-bath-arena

In truth, it is unlikely that the classical counter proposal for Bath’s rugby stadium will be taken seriously. The bland neomodern stadium design will in all probability be triumphant because it is cheaper to build. This will be yet another lost opportunity for British architecture.

Plenty of civic buildings across the UK tell interesting and idiosyncratic stories. The most successful emanate the British value placed on character. When wider society regards buildings as important, let us not make them cold, unfeeling and silent. Let them have personalities, much like the people who inhabit and spend time in them. This approach would entice even non-rugby fans to watch a game in Bath’s stadium.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover