Will Wiles fears the swimming pool is trickling away from the public realm

As a place to exercise, it might be particularly nerve-wracking. As a metaphor, it’s a gift. Housebuilder Ballymore is to suspend a glass-trough swimming pool between two of the towers in its immense development at Nine Elms, south west London. Designed by architect HAL, the pool will span a 14m gap 35m up, part of the complex of roof gardens and leisure facilities being built on the site. 

Quite an engineering feat – and what a symbol it will make. But symbolising what? The inaccessible luxury of life among the capital’s new gilded class? Or the precarious nature of a new high-rise neighbourhood that has come to typify the excesses of the London property bubble? High above terra firma, no visible means of support: not the most comforting imagery for property investors.

Architecturally, HAL’s pool could be seen as the confluence of several trends. There are ‘infinity’ pools, which use a subtle overflow edge to create a sense of union between the swimmer and the surrounding landscape (see box). Another contributing trend is the boom in viewing platforms and observation decks. In some respects this is a simple consequence of there being more tall buildings, and so more opportunities for views. But they also pursue an increasingly extreme interaction with elevation rather than mere appreciation of the scenery, with protruding glass walkways and so on. Is this a sign of frustration? All this height, and what use are we making of it? 

Which meshes with the third trend: the ‘linked hybrids’ and ‘vertical villages’ of the global avant-garde. Steven Holl, OMA, MVRDV – the experiments by these practices in inhabited bridges, linked superblocks, massed megablocks etc are less innovation than the rediscovery of the metabolist, brutalist or even constructivist proposals of the 20th century. And in the way these things work, this is how these daring and progressive ideas appear in the mainstream: a very nice swimming pool connecting two blocks of expensive flats.  

This is how these daring and progressive ideas appear in the mainstream: a very nice swimming pool connecting two blocks of expensive flats

The swimming pool itself might have exclusively, er, exclusive overtones. They’re expensive to build, expensive to run and take up a lot of space. And in the United States at least, they’ve been ready symbols of wealthy, hedonist, suburban conformity: think of all the poolside privilege in Bryan Forbes’ 1975 suspense classic The Stepford Wives, or Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967). But in Britain, the swimming pool used to have a kinder face. The ‘municipal baths’ of the 19th century might have stemmed from patrician hygienic concern, but they were fine buildings, often expressing positively un-Victorian (indeed, proto-modernist) ideas of light and space. By the middle of the 20th centuries they had become exemplars of the built shape of a fairer world. George Orwell’s 1940 essay The Lion and the Unicorn is often presented as a lament for a certain kind of traditional England that has slipped into history and beneath the tarmac of ribbon development and new suburbs. But he also salutes the more equal, positive aspects of that new world, including – in one of his most beautiful phrases – ‘the naked democracy of swimming pools’. 

Today municipal swimming pools – like so many local services – are threatened. Where they are built anew, such as Zaha Hadid’s much-celebrated Aquatics Centre in the Olympic Park in East London, it is at a scale few authorities can stomach. And naked democracy is not much in fashion – councils prefer the insular, vain individualism of the privately run gym. What are the chances of a resurgence of the swimming pool as a community, civic space? Perhaps Studio Octopi’s Thames Lido project, which earlier this year raised enough money to apply for planning permission, is a toe in the water. It’s small, it’s kind of twee, but if it happens, I hope more architects will follow in taking the plunge. 

Will Wiles is a journalist and author. Read him here every other month