The public pool as Australia’s public space
The Australian pavilion for the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale focuses not simply on buildings, thankfully, but on what is almost the absence of a building, the inverse of a building: the pool. In doing so, it actually reveals deeper currents running through Australian architecture than most buildings do.
Curated for the Australian Institute of Architects by the team of Amelia Holliday, Isabelle Toland and Michelle Tabet, the pavilion’s exhibit is accompanied by a fine book, ‘The Pool’, which lovingly explores the rich terrain and complex conditions of the Australian pool, ultimately making a case for it as the authentically antipodean contribution to urbanism, a distinctly Australian public place, the country’s piazza. For a culture typically seen as oriented towards the playa, the pool is its plaça. In fact far more interesting, diverse and widespread across the continent than the beach, the Australian pool is both the deep past of the country—and the book does a good job of describing the indigenous Australian understanding of pools, in all their myriad forms—but perhaps also its future, at a time when genuinely public places are as threatened in Australia as elsewhere.
The book pivots around eight interviews with Australians, each embodying a particular position as regards the idea of the pool, and each framing their responses through personal memories as much as general observations. As you might imagine, some of the interviews reveal more of interest than others, with the contributions of great contemporary Australian writers Anna Funder and Christos Tsiolkas being particularly insightful.
Yet the way that Olympian Ian Thorpe reflects lyrically on the sensory experience of swimming, on the peculiar relations of the body in underwater space, is unexpectedly fascinating. Most of all, he describes the Australian pool as a place for serious swimming — which most Australians do, and which demarcates the pool culture there—but also how it exemplifies the balancing act of architecture, between body, space and programme:
Most sport is being very good at this kind of close spatial awareness of your own body but it’s also taking in the environment that you are in to create a performance.
Equally racial politics are framed here through the interview with Hetti Perkins, daughter of leader of the ‘Freedom Ride’, Charles Perkins, who defied the racist segregation in the municipal pool at Moree, New South Wales, in 1965. That the pool was site of one of the key events in Australian racial politics speaks volumes. The Freedom Ride ‘invasion’ of the pool, reveals its political potency—perhaps more so than a building, or even the square, the traditional site of political protest, due to the visceral fact of bodies sharing the same water—or not. As Perkins points out here, access to the pool concerns,
“the right of children to enjoy themselves, to have a swim, to have a good time, to mix with other kids, to just have fun and share in the opportunities that this country has to offer. The irony that they were denied access to these resources, as the First People of this country, people that have lived in that land for a millennia, is just sad.”
The interviews are framed through startling photography, revealing the diversity of Australian urban terrain as much as its outback, though we can’t help but marvel at the the myriad possibilities of the naturally occurring pools in the farther-flung Australian environments — and not simply limited to the billabong. To some extent, these could be useful precursors for a handful of newly constructed, naturally-filtered pools (something that Nordic and Central European public pools are increasingly good at, and which Australia does need to catch up with. Only a fine naturally self-filtering backyard pool, at the Fairfield House by Kennedy Nolan Architects, is noted here — a larger municipal version of this, in a major Australia city, would be a breakthrough.)
If this kind of pool suggests the opportunity for contemporary ‘green and blue infrastructure’, there is a strong forebear in Australia’s extraordinary coastal pools, photographed beautifully here by Remy Gerega, presumably via drone: vast cerulean rockpools apparently hewn by giants from the raging Tasman Sea surrounding (actually the work of unknown architectural heroes at municipal authorities.) These are one of the few places to experience a glimpse of sublime Australian wilderness in the otherwise overly-manicured experience of the continent’s east coast cities.
Equally, for traditionalists simplistically looking for buildings in an architecture exhibit, there is plenty of masterly, correct and magnificent plays of masses brought together in light here — especially from Robin Williams Architect, Charles Wright Architects, Allen Jack+Cottier, Bligh Voller Nield/Spackman & Mossop, and m3architecture, but perhaps most of all James Birrell, whose brilliant 1959 Centenary Pool in Brisbane is of course here. Birrell is a supremely good architect, criminally little known outside Australia.
But it’s the collection of social vantage points, described in the interviews, that better describe the pool—in particular, as a place of performance: sporting, but also social, political, cultural. It’s a distinctly public place in Australia, neatly captured by Peter Carey in his great little story ’30 Days in Sydney’ describing an ocean pool as “a public pool, a democratic pool, rough at the edges, frequented by all sorts of people…”
These pools are in contrast to those of many other bathing cultures. The European pool is often a withdrawn space in comparison, perhaps as part of an earlier tradition of bathing rather than swimming; an altogether more functional, and personal, act. Where it is public, it is interiorised, compartmentalised, often furtive—delightfully so, in its own way.
In a High Europe classic, ‘In Praise of Older Women’ by Stephen Vizinczey, a description of the Lukás baths in Budapest captures this sensibility perfectly:
It’s a quite extraordinary place, a renovated relic of the Ottoman Empire: a Turkish bathing palace turned into a public swimming pool. About a hundred private steam baths surround the pool, which is in a huge mosque-like chamber with a glass dome over it. The Lukács was jammed on weekends and holidays, but during working hours it was the domain of the off-beat: soccer stars, artists, actresses, members of the Olympic swimming team, some professors and university students, and high-class prostitutes.
This reminds me of swimming at the lovely little Yrjonkadun baths in central Helsinki, where nude swimming is ‘preferred’ to the point of being effectively mandatory — men and women alternate days — or the more utilitarian Ironmonger Row baths in London, or Heeley Baths in Sheffield where I learnt to swim — though I often get the sense that Australians generally think that no other culture has ever learned to swim properly. Peter Zumthor’s lauded baths at Vals is the architectural apotheosis of this trajectory.
(There are echoes of these European pools, actually, in the early, imported models of the Melbourne City Baths and Brisbane’s Spring Hill Baths, photographed here.)
There is a European influence on contemporary Australian culture that also has a pool culture oriented towards socialising rather than bathing: the Mid-Century Italian. Yet its pool culture is largely without the physical act of actual swimming so intrinsic to Australian pools. In Italy, it is as if the water is a mere backdrop to the pose, perhaps ideally a reflecting pool; a typical approach to nature as regimented, conforming scenery. Gio Ponti’s legendary rooftop seawater pool at the Royal Continental Hotel in Napoli exemplifies this perfectly, its irregular form making it impossible to do more than a few strokes in any direction, Ponti allegedly saying: “I hate rectangular pools. Are lakes and rivers rectangular?!”
Certissimo. Yet it is somehow the perfect setting for a negroni.
Other ancient bathing cultures—Japanese, Korean, as well as Finnish—are more withdrawn, intimate ritualised acts of cleansing in accordingly intimate spaces. The classic designerly book on all this, Undesigning the Bath by Leonard Koren, is an almost gnomic, philosophical tract, a Bachelard of bathtime, and actually great as a result. He writes:
“Bathing is best enjoyed in a place where you feel safe enough to put aside your social roles, relax your body armor, and open your psyche to the moment”
In total contrast, the Australian pool is where “social roles” are articulated and expressed. Where Asian bathing resides in spaces largely ‘in praise of shadows’, the Australian pool lies open, exposed, basking in the intense Southern sun, or a scoop of deep blue tiles and refracted sunlight under deeper blue skies. Even swimming underwater in an Australian pool is bathed in light, and some of the more extraordinary images in this book are those by Narelle Autio, startling blue and green worlds under the surface, with the sun reaching deep into even these recesses.
Where the European public bathing tradition is more cave than piazza—in the best sense; a splendid, often beautiful cave, a place for personal reflection, of silence, and essentially of bathing rather than swimming—it’s not a place of public performance, either public or physical, whereas Australia’s matey, convivial sense of total social relaxation is rarely clearer than at the pool (when most of your conversations are taking place near-naked, after all. A leveler, that, just as it is in the Finnish sauna — but in open, brazenly in public.) Despite the focus on swimming, on physical exercise, it’s also a flattened, open public space, demonstrating a people, plural, rather than a person, singular. As Tsiolkas says here:
(T)he suburban multicultural public pools, for me, represent a version of Australia that I am most comfortable with and that I think, is the version that I really would love to keep defending.
Perhaps, in places where there is a strong tradition of viable public space elsewhere—in the street and the square—the European pool’s function is to be the withdrawn space; conversely, in modern Australia, with a limited tradition of public spaces thanks to its 20th century doubling-down on American urbanism, the pool becomes a necessary condition for a community to come together. Despite the political expression often likely to be personal rather than collective (as befits the general Australian political traditions), the book notes not only the aforementioned Moree 1965 protests but also the 1994 campaigns to save the Fitzroy Pool in Melbourne, noting how the latter also became a “parable for our times”, as people fought for the pool as in some way embodying “democracy, freedom, community”, in its own humble quotidian fashion.
An event too recent to make the book reinforces this sensibility, of the Australian pool in opposition to a general ‘closing inwards’ in Australian politics. An 8400-word rant by tech entrepreneur Matt Barrie, posted on LinkedIn in February but then picked up everywhere from Sydney Morning Herald to the Daily Mail, thoroughly skewered the small-minded conservativism that is rarely lurking far away in local politics, decrying its impact upon urban life in particular. For Barrie and many others, a series of heavy-handed moralistic impositions, around licensing especially, indicate a discomfort with the basic conditions of city life. ironically in this most urbanised of countries.
And the emblematic image associated with the article? It’s an Instagram’d photo of policemen with sniffer dogs patrolling the Andrew Boy Charlton pool at Wooloomooloo, the policemen incongruous and absurdly overdressed in mirror-shades and heavy black uniforms amongst the glistening, sunscreen-oiled, bikini’d and speedo’d bodies reclining in the glaring sun beneath them. It’s a passive aggressive denial of the idea of public space, and the opportunity it affords for social fluidity, and it’s telling that the pool is the place it happens.
It must be said that the typical range of possibilities at the Australian public pool is unarguably more narrow than a genuine public square. A focus on swimming and social interaction, in that order, limits things rather more than the bundle of potential that the square affords. Michael Kimmelmann’s beautiful meditation on public squares in the New York Review of Books ends with a melancholy reflection on a perfect, and perfectly normal, square in Berlin, the kind of square that one finds everywhere in European cities (here, Ludwigkirchplatz.)
It’s not quite an hourglass shape, paved in patterned bricks and shaded by rows of linden trees, with café tables spilling from bars facing the square. A sandy playground squats below the bellowing apse of the church. A raised semicircle of benches looks back toward the café tables and onto a pair of slightly tilted concrete ping-pong tables, which do a brisk business in warm weather. A plaza between the café tables and the ping-pong tables is the square’s main stage, where skateboarders vie with toddlers, dog walkers, young mothers pushing high-priced strollers, and Wilmersdorf widows, the last generation of war survivors, not unlike the Italian matrons whom I recall from my childhood in the Village, and similarly disapproving.
The pool, as a place, is necessarily more closed than this—it cannot be so physically open to the city’s threaded networks. Yet in a place where the main alternative is the mall—as has been increasingly the case elsewhere, even in Europe—the Australian pool still stands in for this sense of publicness, not least through its easy social texture. In her interview in ‘The Pool’, Anna Funder reflects on the strict social rules enacted in American public pools—in New York at least, perhaps due to its perennially frayed social fabric— in comparison to the sunny openness of the Australian equivalent (where, in my experience, the only friction usually concerns swimming the wrong speed in the wrong lane.) She also compares the pool to public libraries, valorising its role in public life accordingly.
I think the pool is really pivotal for a local community, like a public library. They are the pillars of a community. The library is a place where you can go and dive into knowledge for free and endlessly and in your own time and the pool as well. I think they’re incredibly important places.
Given this, the ‘militarised Andrew Boy Charlton Pool’ image is a reminder of what Australia has to fight for: the importance of public spaces, of places that public politics can be refracted through. This exhibition, and this book, underscores that point, exploring it in numerous ways — and in doing so, suggests the wider themes of this year’s Biennale.
The curator of this year’s Venice Biennale, the brilliant Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, recently said:
What we architects model is not bricks or stones or steel or wood, but life itself. Architecture is about giving form to the places where people live — it is not more complicated than that but also not more simple than that.”
The pool must traverse what architecture engages with, from the most basic conditions of shelter, of transitions from privacy to public — and the nakedness and near-nakedness of the pool makes it a particularly intriguing condition that pools have to engage with, as Tsiolkas points out — through to higher order of the human condition, and the wider systems through which a society articulates itself.
Indeed, ‘The Pool’ starts with Tim Flannery talking about the Great Artesian Basin which lies under much of the continent. Perhaps it is subtly underscoring this more radical approach to the pool — as continental-scale infrastructure, as underpinning all life, as the well-spring from which Australia itself emerged tens of thousands of years ago, and with which modern Australian culture concretised itself.
The Basin, in this sense, is ultimately the core metaphorical pool for Australia to consider, as it embodies the fundamental reality that its space and natural resources are not in fact infinite — thus its urbanism needs to find a more compact yet appropriately Australian articulation. And so it goes for its public life. It, equally, is not an inexhaustible resource that will thrive no matter what, but needs uniquely Australian spaces and places to plant itself in, to be encouraged, and to flourish.
The pool has been all that and more. At best, as documented here, it stands for an openness to change, the presentation of a society, a sense of social fluidity, a sturdy resilience and daring form-making, health-nurturing qualities, a democratic flatness, a reminder and pointer for green and blue infrastructures, a place that embodies a civic sensibility. Compared to the ‘variations on an opera house’ and arrays of finely-honed houses as ‘objects in the landscape’ — as good as they all are — the question of the public pool suggests a more productive and challenging brief for a future Australian architecture.
An edit of this article was first published at Dezeen on 14th May 2016.
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