The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Bathing belles in peril: Lasting Lidos

Despite this hot summer we are enjoying, we do not tend to think of Britain as a place particularly conducive to outdoor bathing. In a country where the average temperature hovers around 17 degrees nothing testifies to the optimistic spirit of interwar Britain like a Lido. These outdoor, often salt-water, swimming baths are more than romantic reminders of plucky Britons in knee length togs. Many of them are also fine examples of the architecture of leisure, often characterised by a delightful mixture of Art Deco and the International Style.

Leisure time is now taken for granted, but is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating from the 1930s, when the majority of the working population first enjoyed the benefits of reduced working hours and paid holidays. A general concern for public health, new attitudes to sunlight and open-air pursuits gained credence through contemporary medical theories. The Physical Training and Recreation Act of 1937 was a direct response to developments to improve national efficiency in Italy and Germany. It is no surprise, then, that many of the lidos of current concern to the society were all built around this time. The word Lido derives from the Latin ‘litus’ meaning ‘shore’ and was borrowed from the famous bathing resort of Venice and came to be used throughout Europe for beaches and later open-air pools with amenities. In their use of this word Britain’s councils and private entrepreneurs were lending their facilities an air of exotic excitement and continental sophistication.

Sadly, the lido has suffered terrible neglect over the last few decades, a direct result of the ‘rush to the sun’ trend in holiday choices. Although Penzance and Saltdean lidos have been granted statutory status, there are surprisingly few lidos listed, and this has led to many of them being in-filled. Blackpool, Morecambe, St Anne’s, New Brighton and Portobello, to name but a few, have all been demolished. Despite the indifference of generations of councillors, these outdoor pools are held in great affection by the British public, columnists as diverse as Julie Birchill in the Guardian and Jan Etherington in the Daily Express have reminisced about the romance of the lido (Birchill accused certain councils of ‘Lidocide’). In their heyday, the lidos provided the equivalent of today’s gym: combining fitness and social interaction. Health and leisure: key words in 1930s social commentary, equally informed the architectural language of the period.

The Twentieth Century Society has recently proposed the Scarborough South Bay Pool by Harry W. Smith, Borough Engineer from 1893 to the 1930s, for spot-listing on an urgent basis at Grade II, in order to protect it from being in-filled and possibly turned into a family leisure area. The South Bay Pool was closed in 1989 and has been under persistent threat since then. Click here for images.

The construction of the largest outdoor pool in Europe, 330 ft long and 167 ft wide, began in 1914 and was completed in 1915, with associated buildings and bungalows built in a second phase in the 1930s. The seawater pool is an excellent example of its period and a testament to the new social ideas of healthy urban living that gripped the early century. It is now, unfortunately, one of few that is left. The pool has already suffered the demolition of its high diving boards, which were a superb example of sculptural lido architecture. However, the three stunning 1930s fountains are still all remaining.

Not only is the Scarbourough pool valuable architecturally but the reasoning behind its erection is also of importance. Built at the point where the flood tide strikes the coast, this has led to assertions that the lido was specifically placed to direct the tide southeast towards Filey, so as to prevent tidal erosion of the Scarborough cliffs, which has been so apparent with the recent landslides. This declaration is given further credibility when one considers that building was allowed to continue during the war when unnecessary projects were frozen. Smith chose a water-filled site as the best technical solution to the problem of coastal erosion. He found the two million gallons of contained seawater gave extra strength to the lower part of the retaining walls, effectively acting as a buttress, a solution that can also be seen at Tinside Pool, Plymouth, which in 1989 withstood force 12 gales.

Tinside was built in 1935. As a mid thirties leisure building it is ideally suited to that peculiar mixture of Art Deco and International style which so characterises many of our best seaside buildings. It was listed in 1998 having suffered much neglect. Following a feasibility study, and competition, John Allen and Avanti architects were awarded the contract for its redevelopment. In its full glory, Tinside was a stunning sight. A classically proportioned semi-circular pool; it has three fountains or cascades for aerating the water. At night the water was floodlit from below, as were the cascades, which went through three colour changes. Designed by S. Wibberley, City Engineer, the lido is part of a dramatic complex of buildings, which hug the cliffside and extend into the sea. The main building, in reinforced concrete, reflects a more austere modernism than the exuberant pool. It has a flat roof, with sun terrace. Part of the popularity of the Lido arose from the new interest in the continental activity of sunbathing. In the 1920s and 1930s swimming costumes became more flattering and the rise of sunbathing in France, Germany and the US encouraged the cult of the body beautiful. In Europe lidos such as the Piscine Molitor in Paris of 1929 were the first to adopt the modernist style in order to embody the worship of sunlight and physical fitness. The seaside lido manifested the transformation of sea bathing in the 1920s from a predominantly health activity into a leisure activity and because it was feed from the constraints in planning of more conventional pools it presented local authorities with the opportunity to emulate continental fashions.

A more conspicuously continental modernist lido is Saltdean, near Brighton. Designed by R.W.H. Jones in 1938, Saltdean was the first lido in Britain to be listed. It is built in a stripped modern style, having a central two-story block with a projecting convex curved façade towards the pool. The block is surmounted by two pavilions and a partly roofed terrace and is flanked by single storey wings in a wide convex arc with reflects the curved north side of the pool. The front of the central block is surrounded by a broad canopy at first floor level which links with the terraces over the wing, supported on slender concrete columns carried up as structural mullions into the glazed first floor wall. The lido is reminiscent of the work of Erich Mendlesohn at the De la Warr Pavilion and echoes, appropriately, the modernist model of the ocean liner. The whole complex was imbued with the ideal of gentile luxury: each wing flanking the warmed open-air swimming pool had changing rooms for one gender, linked by a café with tea and sunbathing terraces above.

One of the most recent lido cases sent to the society concerns the Bulwell Lido in Nottingham. The manager of this 1937 pool is keen to be granted Heritage Funding, although he admits that quite a few changes have taken place since its Deco heyday. Lidos are enormously expensive to run, many do not fulfil the exacting health and safety criteria to which a public bathing place must conform. Indeed these criteria have already cost the Bulwell its water slides and fountains. Funding is not easy to come by and some novel solutions have been found. In an unintentional tie in with their current advertising campaign featuring babies in a 1930s Hollywood-inspired synchronised swimming routine, Evian water are sponsoring London’s Brockwell lido. Corporate sponsorship is just one of the routes lido managers have taken to raise the income necessary to run their pools.

Lidos are one of the most popular varieties of structure brought to the attention of Twentieth Century Caseworkers. While this obviously demonstrates the affection in which these outdoor pools are held, there is also a more worldly reason for getting ones lido listed. According to Janet Smith, author of a book on Tooting Bec Lido, many campaigners have approached Sport England for funding from the Sports Lottery Fund. This, however, has been unsuccessful, as they are unwilling to sponsor outdoor pools. The majority of councils are equally unconcerned about supporting open-air baths. For those lidos unable, or unwilling, to garner corporate sponsorship, this leaves the Heritage Lottery Fund as virtually the only potential source of financial assistance. Of course, in order to qualify for this money, the Lido must first be listed, which explains the recent surge in awareness of the architectural merit of the pools built in the 1920s and 30s. From the point of view of the Twentieth Century Society, and all those who care about the unique architecture of the Lido, Heritage Lottery Funding is by far the best way for the pools to receive the income necessary for their rejuvenation, linking their continued viability with the imposition of strict guidelines concerning any alterations.

For those wishing to find out more about the history and architecture of lidos, the Society has published the report Farewell My Lido (1991). Janet Smith’s book is entitled Tooting Bec Lido: a history of the pool.

Related links: 04/2002 Lido update12/2001 Droitwich Lido, Worcs

Emmanuelle Morgan