Where was the world’s first public swimming pool? To date, the needle of the global compass points at Mohenjo-Daro, a remarkably advanced city built around 2,600BC in the Indus Valley. Abandoned just 700 years later, it lay buried until its rediscovery in 1922. The pool may have been a public bath, of course, yet for thousands of years, public baths and swimming pools have often been one and the same thing. A touch ironically, the city and its pool, located in what is Pakistan today, appear to have vanished in a great flood.
The most impressive public swimming pool built in recent years is surely the Aquatics Centre, designed by Zaha Hadid for the London 2012 Olympics. This beautiful, wave-like concrete, glass and timber-ceilinged building opened to the public this month and to the evident delight of thousands of schoolchildren from the east of the city who have had very few places to swim locally until now.
A fear of water − and even a fear of personal hygiene − held back the development of public baths and swimming pools in many countries until very recently. In fact, the modern craving for pools really only began with the re-invention of the Olympic Games, held in Athens, in 1896. From then on, towns and cities of advanced nations appeared to vie with one another to see which could build the best and most opulent pools.
Bread and circuses
Naturally, the burghers and architects of such towns and cities turned to Ancient Rome for precedence and guidance, for the greatest bathing and swimming complexes were built under the direction of extravagant Roman emperors. The Baths of Caracalla, dating from the early 3rd Century and those of Diocletian, from around a century later, must have been stunning places to visit. Featuring hot and cold pools, spas, gyms, restaurants, libraries and fecund walled gardens, and designed in the very grandest of architectural styles, these vast buildings were open to everyone. They were at the heart of the imperial Roman policy of ‘bread and circuses’: keeping the people docile by lavishing them with free food and popular entertainment.
Today, lucky bathers taking a dip in the exquisite underground pool of the distinctly private RAC Club in London’s Pall Mall, do so in surroundings that, although built and decorated shortly before World War I, recall those hedonistic days of Roman bathing. British cities up and down the country invested in ambitious public baths at much the same time as the palatial Royal Automobile Club Club was on the drawing boards of Mewes and Davies, among England’s finest Edwardian architects, and best known perhaps for London’s Ritz Hotel. They went on to design Pompeian style swimming pools for ocean liners during the heyday of these imperious floating palaces.
Grand, architect-designed baths can be found around the world, ranging from the magnificently austere to the decoratively decadent and overwhelmingly kitsch. One of the most gloriously grand baths can be found in the Art Nouveau-style Gellert Hotel in Budapest, rising from the site of an ancient thermal spring. The baths, completed in 1918, stayed open throughout the turmoil of World War II and, though the hotel itself was rather run down during the Cold War years, the baths remained as opulent as they had ever been, a steamy, watery realm in which hotel guests and the public alike could forget, for a few hours at a time, that they lived under the yoke of the Soviet Union.
One of the most remarkable public pools of all time − the world’s largest – could once be found in the very heart of the Soviet Union. This was the deeply curious open pool lapping in the foundations of what was to have been the Palace of the Soviets in central Moscow, a monumental congress hall, taller than the Empire State Building, that was to have been topped by a 100m statue of Lenin. The site of the proposed building, designed by Boris Iofan, was that of the 19th Century Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Saviour: on Stalin’s orders, this was blown up in December 1931. The palace was never built, while the pool remained open until work began on an identical replacement for the desecrated cathedral in 1995. So here was a ghostly architectural pool, where swimmers could imagine the immense bulk of either the Palace of Soviets or the Orthodox cathedral above their heads as they gazed at the Moscow skyline, heads in the snow, bodies in warm water.
I was wholly entranced in the elemental beauty of the Thermal Baths at Vals in Switzerland. Designed by Peter Zumthor, and opened in 1996, this dream-like spa is built into the landscape like some strange, yet enchanting geological outcrop. Its dark, locally quarried stone walls gleaming with quartz, form a series of gently lit underground caverns. You negotiate these ethereal spaces before swimming up into an open pool with a view of snow-capped mountains. It is a truly sensational experience conjuring a feeling of near profound delight as opposed to the splashes, spills and thrills of many modern public and hotel pools decked out with all the latest, luridly coloured family fun flumes and scream-a-minute rides.
In the UK, the Thermae Baths Spa offers a very different view than that of the Swiss Alps, from its rooftop pool. Designed by Nicholas Grimshaw and opened in 2006, the ultra-modern and supremely sleek New Royal Bath is set within an architectural frame of restored 18th Century spa buildings. This ensemble works well, especially for swimmers popping up to find themselves outdoors on the roof of the new building and surrounded by the buildings of one of Europe’s finest historic city centres.
More discreet and easily overlooked by visitors to Helsinki is the city’s Yrjönkatu baths, its modest entrance tucked into a corner of a street in the looming shadow of the famous Torni Hotel where Cold War spies once swapped secrets − or so it’s fun to believe − as regulars dived into the waters of the city’s first public pool. Opened in 1928, the Yrjönkatu baths were designed by the architect Vaino Vahakallio in a confident 1920s neo-classical style, as simple as the Gellert Baths are ornate.
Vahakallio was also the architect of the astonishing state-owned Alko distillery and brew house on the waterfront in Helsinki. Resembling a power station this, significantly or not, was Finland’s biggest building to date, offering citizens of a country squeezed with its back to the Baltic by the brute power of Stalin’s neighbouring Soviet Union, welcome solace in 1920, just as the Yrjönkatu baths had done in the 1920s, when prohibition kept Finland ‘dry’.
All great, architect-designed or architecture-related pools have offered something of these special sensory and tactile delights. From spick-and-span and slightly chilly 1930s English Lidos and ambitious structures designed for Olympic Games, to the loucheness and sensuality of Ancient Roman and Art Nouveau baths, public pools have been some of the most diverting of buildings, with Zaha Hadid’s alluring Aquatics Centre − emerging from a tangled, rough-and-ready patch of east London − only the latest in a long line stretching back through the Baths of Caracalla to that of Mohenjo-Daro, as dry as parchment today, 5,000 years later.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.