Loading
The best public swimming pools around the world
Share on Linkedin
Bondi
From Bondi to Berlin and Copenhagen to Cornwall, swimming pools – particularly outdoor ones – are always in demand. Dominic Lutyens dives in and explores the pool's past, present and future.
I

In countries as far afield as Iceland, Denmark and the UK, and in cities such as Los Angeles, Sydney, Berlin and Beijing, public swimming pools have historically been democratic palaces of leisure. In the UK, many public pools and outdoor lidos have long lain neglected; yet they are now experiencing a revival, as people increasingly rediscover the invigorating pleasures of swimming, especially outdoors. With a growing number of community groups and councils recognising the value of lidos (outdoor swimming pools) and pools to local communities, many are being restored and modernised to meet 21st-Century requirements.

More like this:

-          The downsides of a 'wipe-clean world'

-          What the Nordics can teach us about fun

-          Why the tiny house is perfect for now

"A lot of work advocating the return of the lido was done in the noughties," says Michael Wood, assistant professor in sport management at the department of health and life sciences, Northumbria University. "Over the years, I started to dig deeper to understand why we had so few pools in the UK when they were so loved by the public."

The Blue Lagoon in Iceland is one of the most famous natural pools in the world (Credit: Getty Images)

The Blue Lagoon in Iceland is one of the most famous natural pools in the world (Credit: Getty Images)

The golden age of lidos in the UK was in the 1930s, when outdoor swimming became popular, and 169 were built across the country as recreational facilities. This continued into the 1940s and 50s. "Their designs were grand, and developed a strong sense of place for the communities," says Wood. "But, from the 1960s, fewer people flocked to lidos, due partly to the 1960 Wolfenden report on sport and community, which recommended that public pools be housed indoors. A 1968 Sports Council report, Planning for Sport, stressed the seasonal nature of lidos, deeming them poor value for money. By the 1960s, outdoor pools received less funding and were falling into disrepair."

Accelerating their decline, says Wood, was the increase in foreign travel."UK lidos compared less well to countries with warmer climates that people were starting to holiday in." But unpredictable British weather can't really be blamed for precipitating the lido's demise: "Countries such as the Netherlands, Germany, Finland, Sweden and Iceland – with similar weather – have maintained outdoor pools and their vibrant cultures," says Wood.

By the 1960s, Icelandic lidos went ludic, emphasising play over sport, with the addition of hot tubs and gigantic slides.

Architecturally splendid, intact interwar and postwar pools in Reykjavik, Iceland, include Sundhöll (which means swimming palace), a modernist building featuring a 25m-long pool, designed by Guðjón Samúelsson, and completed in 1937. Icelandic pools are currently celebrated in an exhibition called Bathing Culture at the Museum of Design and Applied Art in Reykjavik. By the 1960s, the exhibition shows, lidos went ludic, emphasising play over sport, with the addition of hot tubs and gigantic slides.

Guðlaug baths in Iceland incorporates two pools, one heated geothermally by a hot spring (Credit: Ragnar Th Sigurðsson/ Guðlaug /Basalt)

Guðlaug baths in Iceland incorporates two pools, one heated geothermally by a hot spring (Credit: Ragnar Th Sigurðsson/ Guðlaug /Basalt)

In Los Angeles, there's the ocean-facing Annenberg Community Beach House, built in the 1920s for actress Marion Davies by her lover, William Randolph Hearst. Incorporating a heated pool that flanks Santa Monica Beach, it was restored and opened to the public in 2009. "The State of California bought the property in 1959," says Jan Dyer, principal of Studio-MLA, the practice that refurbished it. "The City of Santa Monica took over operations in the 1990s, and invited the public to reimagine its future after the 1994 Northridge earthquake damaged all its structures. Funding from the Annenberg Foundation allowed the City to realise its vision of a year-round public beach house. The original pool was intact but carefully restored, its marble tiles either cleaned or replaced, if damaged, while hand-painted decorative fish motifs on the bottom of the pool were repaired. Studio-MLA designed the children's play area and surrounding new structures, and introduced sustainable strategies to reduce light pollution and energy use."

In the UK, a renewed interest in lidos began in the 2000s with the publication of books such as Liquid Assets: The Lidos and Open Air Swimming Pools of Britain by Janet Smith, and The Lido Guide by Emma Pusill and Janet Wilkinson. "Several old lidos are scheduled to re-open this year in the UK, such as Cleveland Pools in Bath, Britain's oldest example," says Wood. "Another in Hull should follow in 2023 and we can expect to see 20-30 new public outdoor pools by 2030, bringing the number of public lidos in Britain from around 130 to 160."

Municipal pools, such as Moseley Road Baths, a handsome, Edwardian building lined with glazed brickwork in Balsall Heath, Birmingham, built in 1907, and Art Deco seawater lido Jubilee Pool in Penzance, Cornwall – so-called because it was opened in 1935 to celebrate the Silver Jubilee celebrations of King George V – were once impressive, large-scale amenities until they fell into disrepair. The former is being renovated; the latter has been fully refurbished.

Moseley Road Baths in Birmingham, UK, has recently been renovated by conservation architects (Credit: Paul Miller)

Moseley Road Baths in Birmingham, UK, has recently been renovated by conservation architects (Credit: Paul Miller)

Moseley Road Baths, an ornate building designed by William Hale and Son, almost closed a few years ago because costs to repair it were so exorbitant. The building had once served various practical functions including laundry washing and individual bathing at a time when many homes didn't have bathrooms. Over time, condensation and air-borne chemicals had caused decay in the cast-iron arches spanning the width of its largest bathing area – the 75ft by 35ft Gala Pool. However, they have been recently renovated by conservation architects Donald Insall Associates (also responsible for restoring the Ancient Roman thermal springs and Cleveland Pools, both in Bath).

"Friends of Moseley Road Baths was set up following a public outcry over plans to close the building," says Matthew Vaughan, the project's lead architect. "They formed a coalition with Historic England, World Monuments Fund and Birmingham City Council, which jointly funded the repairs." The baths now offer activities serving the local community, including therapeutic-movement classes, yoga, language lessons, tai chi and crafts exhibitions. The baths have also been used for some time by the LGBTQ+ swimming group, Moseley Shoals.

Balconies flanking the pool have been repaired: "The Roman baths we restored also had balconies," says Vaughan. "At Moseley Road Baths these would have been used to spectate swimming competitions… and supervise swimming classes later in the 20th Century." Pointing out the origins of public bathing, he adds: "In his Ten Books on Architecture, [Roman architect] Vitruvius wrote about public baths in Ancient Rome. The Romans constructed buildings that took advantage of natural hot springs and mastered the artificial engineering of water. Public bathing was common in Britain during the Roman occupation, for example at the baths in Bath."

A bigger splash

Now the Romans' water-heating techniques are being adopted afresh in our environmentally conscious times, notably at Cornwall's Jubilee Pool, one of the largest seawater lidos in the UK: "The drive to refurbish it was instigated in 2014 by Friends of the Jubilee Pool, a charity set up by locals, who raised £1.8m towards its renovation, with support from Cornwall Council, Penzance Council and EU funding," says Alex Scott-Whitby, director of Scott Whitby Studio, the architects behind the refurbishment.

The Jubilee Pool in Penzance, Cornwall, has been refurbished and modernised (Credit: Getty Images)

The Jubilee Pool in Penzance, Cornwall, has been refurbished and modernised (Credit: Getty Images)

"The original pool's remarkable sweeping walls break the waves, but it had suffered from being exposed to gales over 80 years," says Scott-Whitby.

"The Deco pool has a classic, seagull-wing shape and juts into the sea," says Susan Stuart, the Jubilee Pool's director. "Old shelters on the Victorian promenade, on to which the pool was built, were utilised for kiosks, storage and a café kitchen. We wanted to keep that simplicity but desperately needed to modernise the lido and create more space. New glass buildings link the shelters in a light-touch, modern way, neither competing with nor seeking to ape the Art Deco form."

The restoration of the lido – and extension of its café and bar and addition of a community hall offering facilities such as art shows and fitness classes – are reviving its fortunes. "Part of the pool is geothermally heated by drilling deep into the ground and extracting warm water from it," says Scott-Whitby. The idea for this heating method was suggested by local graphic designer Martin Nixon and his brother, Charles.

Lidos also appeal because people are pushing back against our digital age, and appreciating the sensual, experiential qualities of swimming – Michael Wood

"It's the second geothermally-heated pool created in Britain; the first was the Roman one in Bath. It can be heated up to 35°C, allowing it to be used all year round. A similar pool is Blue Lagoon in Iceland. Jubilee Pool is likely to trailblaze other geothermally-heated seawater pools. Penzance is one of the [UK's] most deprived communities, and the pool is now seen as a form of regeneration, attracting more tourists to the area."

Susan Stuart adds: "Year-round opening and renewed interest in cold-water swimming is supporting off-season growth, reducing seasonality in the local economy and bolstering employment prospects."   

Barton Springs Pool is a three-acre bathing pool built in the channel of a creek in Austin, Texas (Getty Images)

Barton Springs Pool is a three-acre bathing pool built in the channel of a creek in Austin, Texas (Getty Images)

The attraction of Jubilee Pool has been reinforced, says Scott-Whitby, by "a huge interest in swimming and feeling of optimism post-pandemic". Wood agrees: "The pandemic made us appreciate what is local to us. Lidos also appeal because people are pushing back against our digital age and appreciating the sensual, experiential qualities of swimming."

Another early 20th-Century seawater pool still in operation is Bondi Icebergs Club in Sydney, originally called The Icebergs Swimming Club and established in 1929 by lifeguards who wanted to maintain their fitness by swimming during the winter months. At the south end of Bondi Beach, it comprises a 50m-long adults' pool and a shallow, 25m-long childrens' pool (both unheated) – it's now open all year round. Other features include hot showers, a poolside restaurant, a sauna and a museum documenting its history. 

In 1999, Icelandic practice Basalt Architects masterminded Blue Lagoon, a string of geothermally-heated pools integrated into a rugged, volcanic landscape, and in 2021 Guðlaug Baths, also in Iceland, which incorporates two pools, one heated geothermally by a hot spring. Another Icelandic practice, Úti og Inni Architects, created pool complex Árbæjarlaug Árbæja in 1993. "This features an indoor pool – with a glazed dome that draws daylight in – which connects to an outdoor pool," says one of its architects, Baldur Ó Svavarsson. "It also has a slide with water gushing down it, propelling those who ride it into a deep part of the pool to ensure no one is hurt. Another attraction is its hot tubs. Many people don't swim, and like to sit in the tubs and discuss politics."

Natural springs also feed into Barton Springs Pool, a three-acre, artificial bathing pool with a limestone base built in the channel of a creek in Austin, Texas. The surrounding landscape boasts grassy slopes where swimmers can dry off after swimming or find shade in the many trees surrounding the pool.

There is also an abundance of open-air pools in Copenhagen. Architects Bjarke Ingels Group designed the city's Harbour Bath, completed in 2003. Boasting pools of different depths, including a diving pool, it accommodates 600 people, and simulates a beach setting with its piers and boardwalk-like decking.

The Icebergs pool at Bondi Beach, Sydney, is a famously idyllic spot (Credit: Getty Images)

The Icebergs pool at Bondi Beach, Sydney, is a famously idyllic spot (Credit: Getty Images)

Another riverside pool is Berlin's Baderschiff, located in the East Harbour of the city's River Spree. The pool is contained within the hull of an old ship – hence its name, which means bathing ship. This keeps it separate from the river water, which is too polluted to swim in. It was originally conceived as an artwork by artist Suzanne Lorenz in collaboration with architects AMP and Gil Wilk. Open from 8am to midnight, it's also a popular nightspot with a bar and DJs.

One architectural practice with a strong focus on public pools is London-based Studio Octopi, whose introduction to working with communities on new outdoor swimming facilities came with the launch of Thames Baths in 2013. This proposed an experience as close as possible to swimming in a river. "Our idea of naturally filtered river-water pools shrouded in reeds and rushes caught the imagination of the world's press and a crowdfunding campaign raised £142,000. But a site for it is yet to be found," says director Chris Romer-Lee.

One of the studio's proposed projects is Swimmobile, the recreation of an originally US concept envisioning lorries with open-top containers driving into areas without access to water, a collaboration with artist Amy Sharrocks. "Swimmobile gestures towards lost rivers under city streets," says Sharrocks. "The idea is for it to bring a joyous splash to streets. My work is centred on collaboration and exchange, and the Swimmobile is a strong collaborative platform, an incitement to joy and deeper thinking about water. We are facing drastic water economies, but water is our great connector and supporter. The Swimmobile could host a summer season of swimming across six months each year, from May to October, or longer given the current vogue for winter swimming."

Another proposal by Studio Octopi is to restore Grange Lido in Cumbria, an Art Deco, 50m-long seawater lido that closed in 1993. A community-led group, Save Grange Lido, is on the cusp of rescuing the site as a pool. If funds can be raised, it would be heated, and a new café, restaurant and community facilities would be incorporated within existing, extended pavilions.

Outdoor swimming for both physical and mental wellbeing has become ever more popular in recent years (Credit: Jónas Ottósson/ Guðlaug/ Basalt)

Outdoor swimming for both physical and mental wellbeing has become ever more popular in recent years (Credit: Jónas Ottósson/ Guðlaug/ Basalt)

And, thanks to a 10-year-long campaign, community group Friends of Tarlair has secured a 99-year lease on the Art Deco pavilion at Tarlair Lido in a scenic coastal spot near Aberdeen, Scotland, where there is a seawater, tidal pool. Studio Octopi has been granted consent for the full restoration of its Deco pavilion, which will house a new café with community workshops. A poorly constructed, 1970s extension has been replaced with a green stone-clad extension whose form is inspired by the pool's curves and the colour of surrounding gorse and granite-covered cliffs. The project is due to be completed in the summer of 2023.

Romer-Lee has written a book on 70 of the world's finest, man-made tidal pools, called Sea Pools, to be published next year by Batsford. "The sheer variety and staggering beauty of this pool typology is relatively under-researched," he says, seeing it as the start of a wider plan to build more of these pools. "Where long tides mean troublesome swimming at low tide or where the coast is particularly dangerous due to its geology, tidal pools provide a safe haven for communities to access water. A thread that runs through all our work is the fundamental right to access water."

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.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.