Bathhouse’s were a common sight across the UK up until the 1970’s when they were slowly taken out of use due to bathrooms becoming a standard feature in houses and the break up of unions who would use them. Barking, an area in London, had a bathhouse up until the 1980’s which was used by local people for bathing but also meetings and other events were they would board over the baths to make into a large space. These bathhouse’s were low cost, communal spaces that brought people together. Like bathhouses spa’s in other countries such as Finland, Austria, Germany and Onsen in Japan are considered an everyday experience – new developments in Finland, for instance, have sauna’s fitted in every apartment. In the UK spa’s are considered a luxury that you treat yourself to once in a while, where you are pampered and preened. The Barking Bathhouse is in response to these issues, it combines the communal nature of the old bathhouse’s and a back basics eco-industrial aesthetic – a simple design using simple materials which is a factor in the projects rock bottom entry prices.
In a similar way to how a film company creates a whole world and company around a production we created the Barking Bathhouse as it’s own immersive world. To realise the work we created purpose designed architecture, interiors, surreal spa experiences, a specialist team of beauty therapists, marketed the project, branded it, made a website with ordering page and became licensed spa holders to be able to achieve the project and allow it to be a legitimate public spa. The architecture consisted of 12 black ‘warehouse’ timber structures based around a 21 metre long corridor. The design was based on Barking’s history as a fishing port and home of heavy industry. By fusing the industrial world with spa culture we were able to make a space that both genders could feel at home in.
The project built a community of local people around it – a mix of those passionate about spa going, alternative therapies and the regeneration of Barking. A positive haven in an uneasy area of London where the English Defence League often meet and where many recent immigrants are housed. Despite this choppy background the project brought about unexpected and wonderful events such as a group of teenage Muslim girls sharing the spa with a group of drinking Polish lads. The multicultural team that built the Bathhouse continues to work together running a spa in Barking.
The project question’s why spa’s have expensive interiors and treatments which leads to high costs and exclusivity. These all drive up the cost for the customer and in turn make spa’s being considered a treat not a health and well being necessity. We used the project budget to be able to employ a team for the project including a spa manager with Four Seasons experience. This meant we didn’t need to reclaim money back from the project and allowed us to charge just £2 for local people to use the facilities.
The Bathhouse ran throughout the summer of the Olympics and into the Autumn before the building was demolished to make way for a leisure centre. During this time it employed eight people and thousands of people visited. The Bathhouse operated from 2013-2020 in reduced capacity as a treatment and massage centre from two empty rooms in Barking Library (BLC) .
As with other projects like FARM:shop, the Barking Bathhouse shows how art and innovation can leading to lasting change in our cities.
The project was delivered in collaboration with Rachelle Moulai, who led the spa with Farrah Idris and the team from CREATE London including Tracey Suen as Project Manager.
Follow the projects continuing story at www.barkingbathhouse.com