Rooftop Pools for Everyone

The existence of the Nine Elms sky pool isn't only evidence of the absurd luxuries of the rich – it proves that we could all have communal luxury, if our political class thought it worthwhile.

One of the rooftop swimming pools at Wohnpark Alt-erlaa. Credit: Zara Pfeifer.

The last time I saw a rooftop swimming pool it was in Vienna, a city which built arguably the best social infrastructure in Europe during the twentieth century. It wasn’t a sky pool or an infinity pool, or anything quite so dramatic – it didn’t stretch between two blocks on a former industrial estate between the US embassy and the headquarters of the secret services. It was just a swimming pool. You could just wander in, as I did, off the street and go up in the lift and see it.

It was a long way from Nine Elms, where not even everyone that lives in the blocks with the sky pool stretching between them is allowed to swim in it (barbarously, residents in the ‘affordable housing’ are barred). I was in Alt-erlaa, the housing estate that is probably the furthest that post-war social democracy got to a vision of real communal luxury.

By now, it’s quite famous on the left, after being featured in a Channel 4 documentary which compared this spectacular rental housing to the dross we accept in the name of being a ‘property-owning democracy’. Here at Tribune we often illustrate pieces on housing with a photograph of Alt-erlaa; it’s a way of saying ‘this here is what we want’.

Wohnpark Alt-erlaa, to give it its full name (roughly ‘Living Park Alt-erlaa’) was built in the 1970s by one of Vienna’s housing associations, founded in the early ’20s by the squatter’s movement – unlike other famous schemes in the city such as the magnificent Karl-Marx-Hof, it was not council housing, but was what would be described in the UK as ‘social rent’, well below the market level, for people on a waiting list, and carefully controlled against inflation. It consists of several towers in extensively planted, rich green space, which was a common arrangement in the post-war decades, though decreasingly so when the estate was being built in the second half of the ’70s.

What was new about it was the internal planning. The architect of the estate, Harry Glück, designed each block with an unusual plan around a central social core. Flats were single aspect, compensated for by deep balconies, which have always been planted with creepers, stepping down in pyramids to the ground, with social facilities in that core at the heart. These could be pool halls, cinemas, whatever residents found most useful, and at the top of each, a large swimming pool. Since then, this has become almost standard in Viennese social housing, with, for instance, the blocks of the recently constructed new suburb at Aspern each having rooftop pools. It caught on, and now it’s almost considered ordinary, and I’ve seen Viennese architects roll their eyes at them, like it’s all a bit silly.

Vienna is a somewhat miserablist city, something which I personally consider to be a ruse to hide from outsiders, like those in nearby and ironically far less ‘socialist’ Bratislava and Budapest, and especially those migrants coming to the ‘gates of Vienna’ through the Balkans, just how impressive its social provision was, and still is. Perhaps accordingly, Alt-erlaa was heavily criticised when it was built.

The fact the flats were not dual aspect, unusual in Vienna, was harshly criticised, and the Le Corbusier-style approach of huge towers in a park was unfashionable. The 1970s kicked off the obsession with ‘traditional streets’, recently so popular here with Conservative thinktanks. The notion was and is that without the logic of ‘legible’ streets you get boredom at best, social breakdown at worst.

It bears repeating that every single study of Alt-erlaa has shown it to be phenomenally popular with its residents, and frankly it is bizarre to assume otherwise. This is among the best housing ever built, and if it were built for the rich, it would be uncontroversial to say so. What Alt-erlaa showed is that the best housing ever built could be housing for everyone.

What Alt-erlaa also represented was the peak of the idea, first propounded by the Soviet Constructivists and their followers in the 1920s, that housing and public buildings could work as ‘social condensers’. You couldn’t just—as the Soviets later did—stack a load of flats on top of each other, no matter how hygienic, and call it a community. Instead, early Soviet blocks of flats like the famous Narkomfin in Moscow, currently being restored, had roof terraces, public libraries, and gyms all built in.

One architect who learned his trade with the Soviet avant-garde was Berthold Lubetkin, who attended Vkhutemas, the Moscow school known as the ‘Soviet Bauhaus’. When he moved to London, he designed, with his collective Tecton, the Finsbury Health Centre. Though modest compared to Alt-erlaa, it was lush by the municipal standards of the ’30s, with rooftop terraces, a garden, rich materials, open spaces. Criticised for this, Lubetkin declared ‘nothing is too good for ordinary people’.

These are still words to live by, but have been said so much that they’ve become a bit of a cliché. It means something specific, though. It means that we don’t see a rooftop pool on a high-rise block as an ostentatious luxury – we see it as something we all ought to have. To be denied it is an insult.