Miles Elliott is an artist and architectural designer from Cheltenham, England. Having previously graduated from The Bartlett School of Architecture where he received the Assael Award for Professional Practice, Miles has now completed his postgraduate studies at the Royal College of Art with this research project and design proposal for a new typology of collective leisure in the lineage of the lido and the leisure centre. Welcome to the Thermal Common!
The Thermal Common is a continuous, climatized interior where spatial differentiation is created by changing microclimatic conditions in a collective space for a thousand people, in the seaside town of Scarborough, North Yorkshire.
Without open, climatized spaces, those who are financially unable to adequately heat or cool their homes will be most at risk, and thermal comfort could become a wealth-based privilege. Heat and coolth then, are the shared resources of the Thermal Common, which is a self-governing institution, offering a context for collectivity beyond dualistic notions of state or market, public or private. It is a space outside of the productive chain. The way the space is used is negotiated by the local community and facilitated by the local government, supporting the possibility for idiosyncratic cultures to emerge as a form of commoning.
Growing up in Cheltenham, a hot day inevitably meant a thousand people around the art-deco lido. We sat on the edge, and jumped in to cool down. In the winter, we did the same in reverse. The post-war leisure centre offered a mediterranean environment as fantastical relief from the grim weather outside. Both are typified the by the collective experience of novel environmental conditions. Through my research into their origins at the RIBA Archives, I learnt how leisure centres were designed for an industrial paradigm where productive work and pleasurable leisure were strictly separated activities. Amidst a contemporary tendency towards blurrier work/leisure relationships, public pools are in decline. On the rise, are privatised forms of mass-leisure such as theme parks and “competitive socialising”. Recognising these cultural shifts but resisting the wholesale privatisation of leisure, the Thermal Common adopts an ambivalent attitude towards “use”.
It contains five different weather zones, which are each designed with reference to local weather idioms and landscape features: the Clashy Tarn, the Scorching Beck, the Hag, the Dowly Fell and the Dawn Scar. Between these distinct weather zones are overlapping gradients of heat, light, humidity and air movement. These environmental conditions (drawn left) are the core elements of this proposal. The pre-fabricated steel canopy and the terrazzo landscape are secondary elements which exist only for the construction of those conditions.
The Clashy Tarn is a cold and wet space, passively cooled by the evaporation of rainwater ponds which are filled by depressions in the canopy, augmented by cold water walls falling from overhead pipes, and positioned in the area which receives the least sunlight. The Scorching Beck is a hot and humid space passively heated by solar gain from clear south facing ETFE pillows, augmented by hot water walls, and positioned to receive maximum sunlight. Together, they make up the “Wet Side” of the proposal.
The “Dry Side” contains the Dowly Fell and The Dawn Scar. The Dowly Fell is a dim and cool space, passively cooled by the combined efforts of wind cowls, and the ground coolth from walls with a high surface area cut deep into the ground - positioned for maximum exposure to the prevailing winds. The Dawn Scar is a warm space with a diffuse yellow light, created by yellow fritting on the ETFE canopy. The Hag is a clearing of bright, vertical light, where microclimates bleed into one another.
All of these spaces are naturally ventilated by parabolic pores in the canopy which are aligned with the sea breeze.
Scarborough, North Yorkshire
The proposal is situated in a prominent seafront location, with the beach to the east, and mixed-use commercial and residential to the north. Whereas the lido was for the summer and the leisure centre was for the weekend, the thermal common is a “day-to-day” experience. Placing it in an area of high footfall makes it more accessible to pedestrian communities - enabling people to “just drop by”. Like many coastal resorts in Britain, Scarborough has experienced severe economic decline over the last century. Today, it is home to 85% of North Yorkshire’s most deprived residents, many having to choose between heating and eating.
The site is 100 metres long, 60 metres wide and cascades down a 1 in 3 incline towards the beach. First, the site is divided by contours. Then, it is subdivided every 2 metres to form a casual grid. The subdivisions are grouped into three categories according to length. These lines form the diameters of arcs, which complete a variegated but controlled system of curvilinear cells. A large cell is created by grouping nine to twelve small cells and a medium one by grouping two. So each weather zone contains three different scales of space.
What does it feel like?
The visual experience of the Thermal Common is to see everything at once. However, the invisible qualities are revealed by the skin. Breezy shade beside pools of cold water in the Clashy Tarn slowly gives way to sweat-dripping heat and bodies laid all the way back on the gentle slopes of the Scorching Beck. The temperature gradually drops across the bright light of the Hag and the skin is cooled by winds pulled down on the Dowly Fell. And then… still again, in the warm yellow haze of the Dawn Scar. Some gather in groups, and some gather alone together, and all look out to sea.
In conclusion, the Victorian lido and the post-war leisure centre were typologies which created successful contexts for collective leisure in Britain by offering climatized spaces which were delightful because of their contrast to the prevailing weather conditions outside - and beyond the means of most individuals to construct for their own private enjoyment. The lido embodies a conception of leisure exclusive to Summer, and the leisure centre embodies a paradigm of cheap energy and rigid distinctions between work and leisure. Without alternative proposals which respond to contemporary work-leisure paradigms, there is a risk that collective leisure continues to be privatised. The Thermal Common is a proposal for a new typology of collective leisure in the lineage of the lido and the leisure centre, where gently varying microclimatic conditions are fluidly organised in a non-deterministic manner and integrated with the surrounding urban context to form a spatial continuum of thermal commoning.