BY Crystal Bennes in Profiles | 20 SEP 18
Featured in
Issue 198

A New Life for a Retired Bath House: Goldsmiths CCA

In the tanks of a Victorian bathhouse, the Turner Prize-winning Assemble have created a contemporary art gallery at Goldsmiths, London

BY Crystal Bennes in Profiles | 20 SEP 18

In 93 years of public service, Laurie Grove Baths (LGB) in London’s New Cross chiefly provided the local community with a place to wash and exercise. Occasionally, the baths hosted other important social activities. In 1932, unemployed marchers from Kent stayed the night in Deptford Town Hall on their way to a mass hunger demonstration in Hyde Park, washing at LGB before they left. In the 1950s, when black people were banned from many local nightspots, the Anglo-Caribbean Association held events in the baths, whose pools could be boarded over for dances and concerts. LGB was finally closed in 1991 before being acquired in 1999 by Goldsmiths, University of London. Now, following a refurbishmentby the Turner Prize-winning architecture collective Assemble, a section of the Grade II-listed baths has opened as Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA).

The baths were designed between 1895 and 1898 by local architect Thomas Dinwiddy. Following rapid population growth in the area from the early 1860s, the facility was commissioned by the Vestry Board of St Paul’s Deptford under the Public Baths and Washhouses Act 1846 to improve social conditions among the working poor. Yet, as Goldsmiths professor of sociology, Les Back, has indicated, the baths were socially segregated, with separate baths for men and women, but also ‘first and second-class’ bathers. Such segregation is partly reflected in the separate male and female entrances of the Jacobean-style facade, behind which the two main pools were housed in a vaulted double-height space. Today, the pools are occupied by Goldsmiths art students: used as studios during the academic year and exhibition galleries during the annual degree shows.

Situated behind the pools, a smaller building incorporated laundries and tanks that stored water pumped from a proprietorial well. It is this interesting jumble, the bath’s back-of-house, which has been restructured by Assemble into a series of eccentric, connected exhibition spaces. In March 2014, Goldsmiths – led by Richard Noble, head of the art department – launched a competition seeking an architect to transform the buildings into a new university gallery. Of 80 respondents, Assemble’s design prevailed. ‘The brief essentially called for a new entrance and a coat of paint,’ says Assemble’s Adam Willis, ‘but I think the way we approached the entire building, adding new volumes and providing as many different opportunities for displaying art as possible, opened up the possibility that this could be a major new institution.’

Adjacent to the late Will Alsop’s relatively restrained 2005 Ben Pimlott Building, which houses Goldsmiths visual arts and digital studios, the new 1,000 m2 gallery makes compelling use of the existing structures. Assemble’s intelligent reconfiguration unifies the disparate buildings around a double-height central space, making strong visual links between the basement, ground and first-floor galleries, but also to the historic swimming pools next door. Although the latter will not normally be publicly accessible, a clear connection is made via large windows on what was previously the baths’ external wall. As the circulation walkway passes immediately under these windows, gallery visitors can simultaneously view Goldsmiths art past, present and future, looking to both the exhibition galleries and working art students.

Model of interior of Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art, 2018. Courtesy: Assemble

Despite its visual permeability, in many respects this is a building of two halves. The ground-floor and basement galleries have been left relatively rough, preserving the original tiled surfaces and London-brick walls. By contrast, two new galleries inserted on the top floor offer more conventional white-cube spaces. Between these two galleries, Assemble have preserved the original braced and riveted cast iron panels of the large water tank, providing an unusual exhibition space, rich with historic texture.

Goldsmiths CCA marks the first major building commission undertaken by Assemble, which was formed in 2010. The group’s first project, The Cineroleum, repurposed a disused London petrol station as a temporary cinema. As the collective created a new kind of architecture studio, project by project, certain critics lamented their seemingly youthful obsession with temporary entertainment over permanent community spaces. Much of that vanished in light of the practice winning the 2015 Turner Prize for its Granby 4 Streets Community Land Trust project in Toxteth, working in collaboration with residents to rehab ilitate homes made derelict by long years of dysfunctional housing policies. Assemble were the first architecture and design firm to win the award. This came one year after the Goldsmiths commission, which Willis reveals was only the second competition the practice had entered. 

Indeed, Assemble were on site before the CCA had appointed its inaugural director, Sarah McCrory, formerly of Frieze Projects and Glasgow International. Early structural decisions made by the practice will have as much impact on the future development of the CCA as McCrory’s curatorial programming – the galleries are naturally ventilated, for example, which will make it difficult to exhibit work requiring strict climate control. The architects have also inserted a door on the ground floor which opens to an alley leading to New Cross Road, not currently in public use. ‘We haven’t just designed a gallery,’ explains Assemble’s Paloma Strelitz, ‘we’ve also marked out signposts for how it could evolve in the future, such as the connection with the high street.’ 

As for what’s to come when the architects depart, the institutional mission statement is as bland as one might expect from a gallery attached to a UK university. Goldsmiths CCA, the website reads, will host ‘world-class exhibitions, projects and artist residencies by international artists’, and enhance ‘Goldsmiths’ reputation for excellence and innovation in the arts’. Prior to the opening, student rumours circulated that the gallery would exclusively exhibit work by the yBas (many of whom are former Goldsmiths students and donated pieces to a Christie’s auction which raised £1.7m of the £4m project budget), but McCrory reassures me that this is not the case.

Rather, McCrory broadly situates Goldsmiths CCA alongside other university galleries, such as Portikus in Frankfurt or CCA Wattis Institute in San Francisco. Within London, she says, compared to the strong identities developed by other institutions around a certain kind of programming – such as South London Gallery or Chisenhale Gallery – the CCA will be defined by its lack of definition. ‘What I’m hoping is that the scale of the programming will be different and that the voice of  this space becomes almost unpredictable,’ she says. ‘Being attached to the university means we have a kind of freedom.’

Opening the programme with a solo show of new and existing works across the gallery’s exhibition spaces is the Argentine artist Mika Rottenberg. Two new films – dealing with women’s labour, representation and body image and with absurdity and humour in art – are interspersed with installations and sculptural objects responding directly to the new building. Rottenberg’s show will be followed by concurrent exhibitions of works by Estonian artist Kris Lemsalu and the late 1970s feminist photographer Alexis Hunter. 

Standing underneath the new entrance portico, Strelitz remarks that Goldsmiths is an urban campus comprised of both purpose-built institutional buildings and many of the area’s historic buildings. ‘How do you try to begin to create a space and a set of relationships that says, “this is for everyone”? The gesture of this entrance canopy was always about providing the first of many spaces in which to draw in the public.’ The arrival of a new contemporary art venue in the former LGB sees the replacement of one public amenity with another, albeit a different kind of amenity for a different kind of public. Nevertheless, within the landscape of London’s art scene, it’s heartening to mark the opening rather than the closing of a gallery, particularly one that promises a risk-taking programme and whose fascinating building is imbued with the social history of southeast London.

Main Image: Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art, 2018. Courtesy: Assemble

Crystal Bennes is an artist and architecture and design writer based in Edinburgh.