An intriguing debate about the collapse of the Roman Empire relates to the question of public bathing. By the early fifth century, many Britons continued to wear togas and speak Latin, but had nonetheless allowed their most sophisticated technology — the baths — to break down and fall into ruin. There may not have been a cataclysmic event, but to many scholars public bathing here comes to stand for civilisation itself.
Social bathing has a variety of traditions worldwide, in many cases derived from ritual ablutions, such as the classic baths of the Ottoman Empire. But everywhere they are found, baths require very particular forms of architecture, in particular a complex set of technical requirements that finely tune water and air to the presence of naked human bodies. Beyond mechanical systems, baths have traditionally been designed with styles and decorations that speak of this sensual environment.
Recent years have seen a resurgence of outdoor swimming in the UK, campaigns to save the architectural remnants of previous waves of bathing enthusiasm, and a flurry of new pool construction. This has encouraged the V&A Museum to put on a show called Into the Blue: The Origin and Revival of Pools, Swimming Baths and Lidos, which demonstrates how well the public swimming pool as a typology communicates values of sociability, leisure, health, and pleasure.
In the UK, bathing as a public endeavour remained dormant until the health-conscious days of the late eighteenth century, with the growth of seaside holiday resorts and spa towns. Then in the industrialised and municipalised nineteenth century, the 1846 Public Baths and Wash-houses Act allowed for local authorities to build public facilities for bathing, a typical example of social provision under the guise of ‘improvement’. Great numbers of ornately decorated Victorian and Edwardian baths were built, and some are still in use today.
Modernism in architecture was from the beginning obsessed with health and hygiene, and when this combined with the increasing leisure of the eighteenth century, the result was the construction of a great number of lidos and pools. These would often be found at newly accessible sea resorts, with concrete walls cutting off tideless pools right at the edge of the water, but they are also to be found throughout inner cities, and indeed, the largest in the world was for many years the Moscow Pool, an outdoor facility built into the foundations of the Palace of the Soviets, a skyscraper planned under Stalin that was cancelled after his death. The architecture was often in Art-Deco style, whose relaxed modernity suits the inter-war pleasure-seeking associated with the pools, with relaxing moral strictures allowing for greater social enjoyment of the body.
The structural sculpture made possible by new materials like reinforced concrete also lent itself to the architecture of public baths, with expressive cantilevering diving boards and vaulting roofs becoming part of the repertoire, often deployed as a formal metaphor for the bodily exertions and exercises that were going on within, a tradition that continues with such projects as the Zaha Hadid pool for the 2012 Olympics, now itself a public pool.
After the war, the era of the welfare state saw the rise of leisure centre architecture, occasionally stunning but often fairly dowdy buildings containing their 50m Olympic standard pools, easily serviced in the era of cheap energy, a type which gradually developed into that quintessentially British institution of wobbly-shaped wave pools, flumes, and signs forbidding ‘heavy petting’. Athleticism here took a back seat to the local pool becoming more of a family and youth culture, social entertainment and an integral part of British growing up.
Leisure centres and public pools were popular projects during the New Labour years, with lottery money and other forms of quick investment allowing for local authorities to invest in these obvious signs of municipal largesse. Beyond the problems with the investment and procurement of that period, and the often poor architecture and construction, the public qualities of the post-2000 baths are clear, as swimming culture became more exercise-focused again, and a variety of other activities for elderly people and others broadened the public health scope of the local pool.
It’s worth considering the image of the public pool against its private cousin; the latter a potent symbol of luxury and exclusivity, so often — as in Tuca Viera’s famous photo of a São Paolo tower’s balcony pools looking over a neighbouring favela — placed up on high for the bather to have a better view of the world they dominate. This quality can be reversed, as seen at the vast Vienna social housing estate Alt-erlaa, whose late-brutalist towers are topped by pools, but recent years have seen wild proposals in British luxury developments, such as private ‘infinity’ pools at the top of 55-storey towers, or for ‘bridge’ pools with glass bottoms that span between buildings, wanton frivolities that demonstrate how the pool can be a symbol of inequality and conspicuous consumption.
As a typology, the public pool has problems — not least of which is the requirement to heat so many tonnes of water, which could quite easily become prohibitively expensive in coming years. Even their public openness is not entirely given, as this year saw a number of violent incidents outside lidos during the summer heatwave, the high demand and stress of overheating not boding well for future summer seasons. But considered as parts of the city, public pools represent a civic investment in the good life.