When in 2015 Birmingham City Council made the decision to close Moseley Road Baths in Balsall Heath, the community raved. Petitions, protests and discussions about the heritage building and its social value emerged from every corner of the city. All clashed with bitter reality. The baths, like many of Birmingham’s other architectural treasures, have fallen into the same pattern: first, we stop using them, then we stop noticing them and then they fall into disrepair. After a while the costs of conservation are too mammoth to be even considered. Heritage loses out to politics and architectural orphans start to inhabit the city - Northfield Manor House (formerly home to the Cadbury Family) and the former Municipal Bank, to name but two examples.
But the baths have not been entirely forgotten and up until now have been the hub of a very vibrant community that, faced with threat to their beloved building, have created a group of activists named the Friends of Moseley Road Baths. Opened in 1907 during the industrial revolution for the workers that moved into the city, the baths provided one of the few places to wash away the dirt of progress but most importantly became a place of rare relaxation and social engagement with fellow labourers. It is the oldest of only three remaining Grade II listed swimming baths in Britain that is still in use.
And here is the moment where art steps in. For Fierce Festival 2015, Tim Etchells, an artist whose work is very much concerned about the life of language, has sited his neon sculpture ‘Will Be’ high up on the baths’ façade. Reading ‘the future will be confusing’, the piece reflects (literally and metaphorically) this elusive proclamation, echoing the collision between word and context. Changing opinions, plans and hopes for the future of the baths unfold in front of our eyes while looking at the colourful neon. There is something uncanny about this statement ‘written’ in such a fragile medium and carrying such an uncertain message. The delicate neon tubes stress the subtlety and power of its case for survival. Invented circa 1900, neon lighting further references the inventiveness of Edwardian society whose traces are all too easily erased.
The strength of Etchells’ work comes from its simplicity. The neon shines like an advertisement attracting attention and the phrase is instilled with an emotion that plays on the character of the building. Tiled with the typical extravaganza of its period and ornamented with a colourful stained glass interior, Moseley Road Baths is a living piece of social history. Separate entrances for men and women, and for first and second class visitors, tell us much about the history of our social system. Once an icon of civic pride, the building is today not big or bold enough for the city councillors. Etchells’ work, then, foregrounds political decision making, both past and present, while offering a poignant prediction of what the future ‘will be’.