Nightswimming, remembering that night
September’s coming soon
I’m pining for the moon
The lyrics of the 1992 song Nightswimming, by the American music band REM, say that swimming is better on a quiet night. They evoke an unforgettable bath once the sun has set. They make us imagine the sensation of going into the water, the image of the clothes forgotten close to the pool, the moon low in the sky and the last days of August.
The twentieth century has been the golden age of pop music, Hollywood movies, television and swimming pools.
Now that summer is almost here, we can understand Ned Merrill, the main character of the movie The Swimmer, who decided to spend a hot day bathing in his neighbors’ pools. “Why would you want to swim home?”, asked his wife, surprised. “Pool by pool they form a river, all the way to our house”, replied Ned, played by Burt Lancaster. And Ned gets going, traveling back to his residence, swimming. It is 1969, and water exudes optimism, joy and modernity. Meanwhile, in the movie, Ned tries to find his inner self, while swimming.
The modern world has so many pools we may be able to swim home: it is the new twentieth century geography. It is a new landscape, made of suburbs dotted with artificial bodies of water, and has spread throughout the planet. This was perhaps what the Spanish artist Fermín Jiménez Landa observed. Inspired by the movie played by Burt Lancaster, Jiménez Landa set out to repeat it in real life. In 2013, helped by Google Maps, he traveled from Tarifa, in the south of Spain, to Pamplona, in the north, swimming in all the pools that he found in the way.
During the twentieth century, the birth of leisure, mass culture and sports made swimming pools popular. Cinema, the maximum exponent of mass culture, knew about the evocative power of a pool. This article will go through several Art Deco swimming pools, which started the “splash” fever. Many of them were main characters on the big screen. And after being on the height of glamor in the midcentury, they fell into decline. Lately they have been recovered as spaces for summer hedonism.
In Paris, the most famous among the Art Deco swimming pools was the Molitor. It opened in 1929, designed by Lucien Pollet. The Parisian upper class was fond of it. With the time, it took the name of “white cruiser”. We can imagine dozens of Parisians sunbathing in the summer pool, which was surrounded by sand as if it was a beach. During the winter, the landscape changed completely and the installation became an ice rink. Fashion shows were also held in the Molitor and, in 1946, the pool was the center of attention when the first bikini was presented there. The pool, despite being part of the collective memory of Paris, was abandoned during the last decades, until, recently, it was recovered as a hotel. But even when it was in ruins, the space maintained a special aura, filled with graffiti from the best urban artists in the city.
Indoor pools also became popular in those decades. In France, in the city of Rennes, the mayor who ruled in the 1920s aimed to provide his citizens with hygiene and physical health. So he promoted the construction of one of the first heated swimming pools in France. Like that one, there were others. In Paris, we would find, for example, the Piscine Pontoise, which was filmed in the movie Three colors: Blue. This pool is very characteristic for its huge glass ceiling and mosaics. Other similar spaces were the Piscine des Amiraux that was immortalized in Amélie, and Roubaix, which has been transformed into the André Diligent Museum of Art and Industry.
In Madrid, a number of pools were built during the 30s. One of the most renowned was the Stella, designed by Fermín Moscoso del Prado Torre, and located in the Manzanares River. The club would be expanded later on by Luis Gutiérrez Soto and José Antonio Corrales. The building was a beautiful example of architectural rationalism. It opened in 1931, and shared with the Molitor the resemblance to a ship. Maybe it was not the first public pool in the city, but it was probably the most popular. Its three pools hold many parties in the afternoon and evening. It was visited by many Americans that lived at the Torrejón de Ardoz air base, and also by celebrities such as Ava Gadner, Antonio Machín, or Paloma Picasso. Several films, like “El Cochecito” (1960) by Marco Ferreri, were filmed there.
The United Kingdom was also filled with bathing complexes. The coastal cities amused the public, who visited them to enjoy the sun and water. Cities such as Brighton, or towns like Penzance, in Cornwall, where vacacional resorts. This was the reason why Penzance hosted a new facility since 1935, the Jubilee Bathing Pool, which is one of the oldest swimming pools in the country. It has aerodynamic lines and a triangular shape. Seawater fills the pool. Today it is one of the best preserved in the country, despite having gone into decline 60 years after its opening. Happily, it was renovated and reopened in 2016.
Miami is characterized by its cheerful style. Among its Art Deco swimming pools, the one at Raleigh Hotel was an icon since 1942. The hotel was designed by L. Murray Dixon, who was one of the leading architects in the city. In 1947, Life Magazine said that its pool was “the most beautiful in America”.
This pool also served as the setting for many Esther Williams’ films, one of the stars of the Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Williams’ debut as a great Hollywood star was with the film Bathing Beauty, becoming the main character of a new genre of cinema. According to Williams, “swimming is the only sport you can practice from your first bath until the last of your life without injury”, and she practiced this during all her life. However, she had to do it off camera, once he married Hollywoodian heartthrob Fernando Lamas.
In New York, Art Deco swimming pools also flooded the city. During the summer of 1936, the public Administration opened up to eleven metropolitan swimming pools. Under the direction of Robert Moses, a large-scale project was carried out to create several bathhouses and outdoor pool complexes. They used the most modern architectural techniques. The largest and most popular of those that opened that year was the Astoria Park Pool. Its location could not be more spectacular, next to the Robert F. Kennedy and Hell Gate bridges.
And similarly, in Australia, the North Sydney Olympic Pool was built in 1936 in a coastal area that became vacant after the dismantling of the Sydney Harbor Bridge workshop. The pool views include now the Sydney Opera House and the Harbor Bridge. The building is characterized by Art Deco arches decorated with reliefs of eagles, frogs and dolphins.
Swimming pools were very successful during the twentieth century. Many lost their appeal with the appearance of other fashions, such as holidays packages, or because of the competition with more modern facilities. Thanks to their cheerful architecture, many have been recovered in recent decades. After all, who can escape nostalgia?
The architectural practice of AGi architects is also full of swimming pools. Swimming pools that enter into the house through courtyards, swimming pools that extend to the sky and the horizon, others that establish a relationship with the volumes of the house… This article has gone through some examples of Art Deco swimming pools that started some kind of water fever. They inspire us because of their spirit. In the next post, we will look at private pools, to their shapes, landscaping and materials to think about how design can make the experience of swimming something completely memorable, and evocative, like bathing under the moon.