It’s a little unusual for a ‘blood and sweat’ rugby club to base its training facilities in a beautiful setting like Farleigh House. But then, Bath Rugby is an unusual rugby club.
Since changing hands in 2010 Bath Rugby has been realising a new vision for the club aimed at elevating it to the best club in Europe. That meant the old facilities, dating from the amateur days with barely a lick of paint since, had to go.
Initially the management team moved to Farleigh. They commissioned Architect Simon Pugh-Jones to advise on the extensive restoration and conversion works, initially as a consultant, later appointing him as full time in-house architect to oversee the clubs projects at Farleigh, and at their home ground in Bath.
‘I already knew Farleigh, having worked there for the previous owners’ explains Simon. ‘So I knew the scale of the challenge, but also the potential to do something amazing, with Farleigh House, and also with the club’.
Such an unusual set-up called for an unusual response. Simon chose to work closely with the tradesmen and subcontractors he knew from past work at Farleigh, as well as those known to Bath Rugby. It was clear from the outset that quality of delivery was going to essential, and so he exploited his ‘in house’ role by operating in a very traditional way – part architect, part master builder, working closely with the individual designers, tradesmen and artisans to ensure each element was as good as it could be.
‘For the gym we started with a beautiful shell – built in the 19th century to look like a chapel, actually containing stables. Sometime in the 1980’s, when the estate was used as a school, there was a fire and the interior was gutted.’
Simon prepared a scheme for the old chapel that completely undid all of the ad-hoc repair that followed the fire. A missing flank wall was replaced with facsimile of its mirror image, and the west elevation completely replaced in a modern interpretation of the gothic architecture of the main house. The new arched façade was extended to enclose additional ground floor space, allowing all the necessary heavy training equipment to be accommodated on the ground floor. Upstairs was stripped out, and to maximise the sense of connection between floors a large semi-circular hole was cut into the floor.
‘For planning we simply showed a large spiral stair, sweeping through 180 degrees. It was only later that we dared to work up the detail of what we really hoped for’.
It was then that Robbin were appointed, partly to undertake the structural work that allowed most of the internal walls of the building to be removed, and also to help develop the stair.
‘I’ve always admired the purity of Eva Jiricna’s staircases, and wanted to take it to that kind of level’ explains Simon. ‘We wanted beauty, elegance – a limited palette of materials, no clumsy fixings and no obvious means of support. We put this to Robbin, and they just said ‘OK – we can do that’, so we knew we were talking to the right people.
From there it was a series of meetings and many emails – exchanging CAD drawings, sketches, suggestions and ideas.
‘I wanted the balustrade to have a feminine elegance’ recalls Simon. ‘You don’t expect a room full of engineers to be too bothered, but we probably spent more time on that aspect than anything else – just ensuring the perfect sweep of the uprights’.
The finish became a key issue. The club’s nearby medical centre was a converted barn which retained architectural references to its agricultural past. There was an idea that the Chapel could have a familial connection, perhaps taking the route of a galvanised finish to the staircase, but with an added twist. The Robbin portfolio had an example of some driveway gates which had been galvanised and primed with a Mordant wash, but just left like that – still obviously galvanised but with an added level of refinement. Meanwhile, the structure of the stair was getting resolved. Each tread was to be like a Lego piece, stacked round a central spine with all the fancy bracketry hidden inside, and just tapering blades of steel visible for each step.
‘We almost succumbed to requests to build in a little window round the back, just so visiting steelwork fabricators could marvel at the intricacy that was otherwise hidden from view’ says Simon, ‘but we made do with a scale model housed in our offices – just in case anyone wants to know how it all works’.
The final one-piece helical handrail and the complications of ensuring that the stack of treads didn’t twist away from the top landing made the prospect of galvanising the finished fabrication too risky.
The decision was made to keep things simple and elegant. The stair was to be painted to match the new metal framed windows in the Chapel, and the treads formed in slabs of oak bonded to carrier plates.
‘The only down side was that a painted handrail was going to be too easily damaged by rings and suchlike’ explains Simon. ‘We thought ‘but this must happen a lot with sports equipment’ and looked for a solution that would fit the building – the eureka moment came from an old tennis racket, and we started thinking about some kind of leather wrap’.
The end result is a little more sophisticated, and involved a specialist yacht fitting company spending 2 days on site stitching a leather sleeve around the entire handrail.
The finished stair is strikingly simple to look at, reassuringly firm underfoot, but aesthetically it floats in the space.
‘I think it’s acquired a character of its own and it’s become more than the sum of its parts. Like a good game of rugby, when all the players in a team get it spot on, it’s a truly amazing thing to experience. This staircase was also a team effort, and though I say it myself, it’s truly amazing’.
SIMON PUGH-JONES. R.I.B.A.