I picture the 16 year old Fred Gibberd sauntering through the streets of Royal Leamington Spa in 1925, the jeune flaneur, an insouciant whistle on his lips, hands in pockets, though only lightly resting there, respecting the workmanship of his father, tailor to the burghers of nearby Coventry, and conscious of those pockets’ onward destiny, to pass to some or all of his four younger brothers. Fred’s artistic sensibility and his sociability will have drawn him with his coterie to the town’s pleasure gardens, passing, and may we imagine, (his head already then full of Le Corbusier’s ideas) darting a critical glance at, a certain imposing mansion with generous views of the park before it.
More than forty years later the pioneering architect, landscape designer and award-winning town planner Sir Frederick Gibberd CBE RA would return to design, for the site of that demolished mansion, a modernist building to house a theatre and a cinema, the Royal Spa Centre, which opened in 1972.
The dignified lines of this building contribute to an imaginative charm that makes the material seem more subtle than the actual brutality of its concrete. Outlook, sight lines and setting were of particular concern to Gibberd: he had turned up with a spade on the building site of his first block of flats (The Lawn) in Harlow first thing one morning to help to ensure that the seven existing oak trees would not be affected by that day’s work; and the consequence of that small but purposeful investment of effort is the delightful effect of that building in its matured setting today. The Royal Spa Centre sits, buffered by its own carefully shaped tree-shaded green lawn, in happy proximity to the luxuriance of the surprisingly wide range of mature trees in Jephson Gardens.
Gibberd, architect of Liverpool’s Roman Catholic Cathedral (“Paddy’s wigwam”), the London Central Mosque in Regent’s Park, and Harlow New Town, was here designing an iconic building for a place he knew and for a community to which he belonged.