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Typology: Swimming Pools

Sites of ablution, illicit heavy petting, athleticism, surveillance, leisure, racism and death: pools bring people together stripped of status symbols, but in ways profoundly marked by wider social conditions

There are few buildings through which you can literally float: space stations and swimming pools are about the sum of it. The latter, then, offer an architectural experience otherwise unavailable to the terrestrially bound. This sensory exceptionalism does not stop at dislocation from gravity, and the caress of the water that facilitates it, but extends to the domain of the aural – there is nothing like the din of a full pool; the olfactory – the evocative smell of chlorine, with perhaps a hint of musty lycra that lingers on your skin after swimming; and the visual, with the play of reflections on water and tiles completing the pool gestalt. Toss in the unusual experience of social nudity, and the utopian character of the swimming pool is revealed. Hockney’s painting A Bigger Splash conveys it well: the transitory motion of water, trace of a vanished body, against the more permanent architecture, all reduced to flat bright planes by the Californian sun.

But though pools are symbolic sites of freedom, where we can drop social constraints along with our trousers, they have a darker side. Their utopianism is restricted by official ambivalence: provided in order to improve the body of the populace through hygiene and exercise, they are strictly supervised to prevent us straying into unproductive pleasure. Co-bathing has generally been banned throughout the history of pools, apart from in first-century Rome and the postwar West, and recent events in McKinney, Texas remind us that the pool – symbol of American freedom – is polluted with racism. As Jeff Wiltse argues in his book Contested Waters, it was the fear of contamination by black bodies that led to the post-desegregation boom in backyard pools. At its most dismal, the pool can also be a grave: Sunset Boulevard, the nightmare twin of Hockney’s American dream, is narrated by a body that is definitely there, floating face-down in the pool he’d always wanted.

Most of our experiences of pools are thankfully more prosaic than this. But the architecture of pools can elevate a quick dip into something else, something that might even remind us that the pool has its origin in sacred sites of ablution. One of the earliest surviving pools is a 5,000 year-old brick tank at the ancient city of Mohenjo-Daro in modern Pakistan. It was presumably used for ritual purification, a function that was equally important in ancient Greece, where baths were incorporated into sacred sites as well as into gymnasia. It is still important for Judaism: the Mikveh has very precise specifications to ensure its cleansing properties.

Reconstruction of the Baths of Diocletian in Rome, 306 AD

Reconstruction of the Baths of Diocletian in Rome, AD 306. Source: RIBAPIX

It was Rome that turned pool building into a secular art, thanks to its aqueducts and concrete vaulting. The provision of infrastructure was a vital role of the empire, and contributed to its lasting success by improving public health – and public relations. ‘What could be worse than Nero’, asked the poet Martial, ‘and yet what better than Nero’s baths?’ Citizens of all statuses regularly attended the thermae, which were a focus of public life for both sexes. The Baths of Diocletian in Rome were the grandest example: a huge complex completed around AD 306 that included a library, gym, shops and restaurants. The remaining section, converted into a church by Michelangelo, features several examples of swimming-pool design’s gift to all architecture, the thermal window. The core functions of a Roman bath were a frigidarium (a cold room with a plunge pool), a tepidarium (a lukewarm room), and a caldarium (a hot room). There might also be a natatio or swimming pool, and visitors would progress through these facilities accompanied by plenty of oiling and scraping, gossiping, networking and flirting. Thermae were exported all over the world, creating an empire of bathers that stretched all the way to Bath in England, where the supposedly healing waters can still be taken in a souped-up modern spa. However, when the Ostrogoths smashed the aqueducts that fed the Baths of Diocletian in 537, the peoples of Europe became the great unwashed once more.

Kiliç Ali Pasa Hamam, Istanbul

Section of Sinan’s Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam, Istanbul, 1580

The tradition of the Roman baths was upheld by the Islamic world in the form of the hamam, which also had a religious function. Hamams are formally multifarious, but can usually be identified by their windowless walls and leaded, ‘elephant-eye’-studded domes, each covering a chamber of a specific temperature. The sexes bathed separately, which permitted a degree of unsupervised sociality outside the home that was otherwise unavailable to women (one notable example, Sinan’s Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hamamı in Istanbul, has a mirrored plan with separate halves for men and women). These baths were exoticised in the West, and imported into our cities, for instance to Vienna, which had fought off the Turk only to see Archduke Ludwig Viktor (AKA ‘Luziwuzi’) fought off by a young officer in a Turkish bath, the infamous Kaiserbründl. Imagined extraterritoriality – the dream of being in a different, supposedly more louche culture – encouraged improprieties that were not always welcomed.

Kiliç Ali Pasa Hamam, Istanbul,

The leaded roof with ‘elephant-eye’ lights of Sinan’s Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam in Istanbul, restored in 2011 by Cafer Bozkurt Architecture. Source: the architects

In Britain, the Industrial Revolution, with its attendant increase in urban populations and disease, gave public health a significance it hadn’t had since the Romans, and the first public baths for the urban poor opened in Liverpool in 1829; the first public swimming pool arrived in London the next year. In 1846, legislation created a municipal bath boom in Britain. Behind grandiose historicist facades, cast iron and concrete permitted uninterrupted vaulted spaces for pools – and uninterrupted supervision of proletarian bodies. Many of these buildings also incorporated Turkish baths and clothes washing facilities, and the public baths continued to be popular until the postwar social housing drive equipped everyone with indoor bathrooms. In German-speaking countries, the paternalism of the authorities was met at the turn of the century by the rise of ‘body culture’, a quasi-pagan celebration of nudity, sunbathing and gymnastics which contributed to the transparency of modern design: Vienna’s beautiful Art Deco Amalienbad, built by the city’s socialist government in 1926, originally had a retractable glass roof.

 Karl Schmalhofer and Otto Nadel, Amalienbad, Vienna, 1923-26

Karl Schmalhofer and Otto Nadel, Amalienbad, Vienna, 1923-26. Source: Corbis

Between the wars America took the lead in pool culture, as the expansion of the middle class and the commercialisation of sexuality led to the advent of mass leisure. Mixed swimming became more common, and swimsuits started to shrink from almost total coverage to reveal the body for the first time. These trends, hopelessly battled by the authorities, led to a huge rise in pool attendance. Although change was occurring on the bodies of swimmers, however, the architecture of pools was not substantially altered by these developments – at least, not in the USA, where backyard Gunite pools became the order of the day after desegregation. Meanwhile in Europe, mass leisure met the welfare state and spawned a huge variety of buildings, from the Miesian sobriety of Edinburgh’s 1970 Commonwealth Pool to the 183 mass-produced Piscines Tournesols built by Bernard Schoeller across France in the 1970s.

RMJM, Royal Commonwealth Pool, Edinburgh, 1970

A little Mies in the mountains: RMJM’s Royal Commonwealth Pool, Edinburgh, 1970. Source: H Snoek

The neoliberal 1980s saw the rise of aquatic escapism in the form of the leisure pool, where wave machines, lazy rivers and pirate galleons sheltered beneath space frames, all woven together by a spaghetti of flumes. The gargantuan progeny of such pools live on today in hangars such as Chengdu’s New Century Global Centre, complete with an artificial sky; and also – in terms of equivalent unreality – Marina Bay Sands, where you can float high in the smog above Singapore, turning the whole city into a water park. It’s enough to make anyone want to join the burgeoning ‘wild swimming’ cult. But although diving into a river can seem a shortcut back to nature – a way of escaping the regimented lanes and administered leisure of the municipal pool – instead of the smell of chlorine there is a whiff of what Marx called the cretinous rural idyll. It’s peaceful, indeed, but rather than returning to some golden age, we take our gentrified selves along with us. However, wild natures can still break through in the public pool – as in the case of the man I once saw meticulously applying make-up in the changing rooms of the Oasis pool, an outdoor gem hidden in London’s Covent Garden, beforegoing for a swim. Cities need these zones of exception where people mingle divested of their markers of status, and swimmers need architects who can design inspiring and sociable spaces.

The Olympic pool in Beijing has been converted into a leisure pool

The Olympic pool in Beijing has been converted into a leisure pool. Source: Corbis

Case Studies


Therme Vals in Switzerland by Peter Zumthor

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London Aquatics Centre by Zaha Hadid Architects

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Piscine Tournesol in Lingolsheim by Urbane Kultur

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Municipal Pool in Tabuaco by Topos Atelier de Arquitectura

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Thermal Bath in Bad Ems by 4A Architekten

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Municipal Pool in Bagneux by Dominique Coulon et Associes

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