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Tuesday, July 01, 2003
  okay sure, pop music... but haven't we forgotten about swimming pools?

Southampton's Swimming baths: a brief history of Chlorine

I don't know when it was built, but it was intended to last. Central Baths, the biggest swimming pool in the city, housed in a brutalist concrete shell, angular, monolithic, central. The name fills me with dread and I'm not sure if that's just because it evokes dim and uncomfortable memories of obligatory swimming lessons as a child, or because of its dark political overtones.

Central Baths. Picture Stakhanovites chopping up the cold water with their inhuman endurance, an unceasing repetition of 5 length plans. It represented the corporatist ideal: one swimming pool in one place for one people, government controlled, giving the people the exercise they needed in a building they understood. Not only were the swimming baths a triumph of functionality, but they implied the superiority of regimented bureaucracy; with the name it was understood that as well as the Central baths, there also existed a whole network of baths, strategically deployed. A new Jerusalem.

The building could have lasted forever, but at some point people stopped going there. Around 1988 Southampton witnessed a rebirth of their swimming pool, this time in the incarnation of: Centre 2000. A slogan, surely "This is how people will swim in the future", was rendered unnecessary by the bright fluorescent graphics and playful typography. It was a sort of liquid Toys R Us, somewhere our eighties tastes for consumer spending and conspicuous swimwear could be indulged simultaneously. Margaret Thatcher had won another election, but somehow the local authority had bypassed National pessimism and tapped into something deeper, something to do with re-runs of Flipper, and the new baths appeared to be a success.

The recession hit. I don't know precisely how my swimming lessons fitted into the larger macro-economical framework, but Centre 2000 closed down, and slowly fell derelict. Kids threw stones at the windows, and some of us even spray-painted our names and tried to steal the fancy letters. ENTRE 200 read its now foreboding legend. The swimming pool of the future had become something of a warning, about optimism in the face of uncertainty, about placing our trust in fanciful graphic design. One thing was certain: we would never be the same again.

The new millennium saw a vast redevelopment of Southampton's city centre. A move away from the mistaken post-war cul-de-sac; a move towards the sea. The vast and largely unused space between the commercial centre and the docks, probably at some stage taken up by long-gone heavy industry, was to be reclaimed, repackaged, and re-launched as Southampton upon Sea, a town proud of its maritime heritage. A shopping centre was built, and the city at last established itself as a cathedral town.

In the shadow of the shopping centre, an unobtrusive building sprouted from the rubble. More or less on the same spot that Central Baths had stood, The Quays [subtitle: the Eddie Read Swimming and diving complex] accessorised the mall's glass and steel with a Swedish log cabin motif. The city that brought you Leisure World ("all your leisure needs under one roof" ?) now offers you the full consumer experience: Shopping gives you a reason to live, and Recreation keeps you alive. Entering the building - sorry, complex - is a bewildering experience. Questions plague your mind, such as "what's with the pleasant atmosphere? why aren't you telling us how to spend our recreation? where are the changing rooms?"

Of course it's soul-less. Its shape is vaguely reminiscent of a cruise ship, and I learn that several giant apartment blocks are to be erected nearby, ostentatiously incorporating brightly coloured sail fins into their design. It's all so incongruous. Southampton's heritage isn't a proud maritime one, not in my lifetime. If we have anything to celebrate it's our proud journey from Central Baths to The Quays. I don't know who this Eddie Read character is, but in my imagination he has something to do with the planning of Southampton's leisure centres. He inhabits a pokey office in the town hall, its walls covered with years of blueprints and memos. He is a true Southampton hero.
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