Who would choose to swim in a swimming pool if they could enjoy the freedom of the sea? According to Thomas van Leeuwen, anyone who is anyone in California, where the thirst for possession, privacy and control and the chill of Pacific water outweigh the plebeian pleasures of splashing about in the briny.
There is a melancholy aura about this whimsical and original book. It announces itself as "an intimate history of the swimming pool". By that, the author signals that he will all but confine himself to private pools, cutting himself off from those teeming centres of 20th-century vulgarity and vitality, the public baths, where the masses wash, keep fit, flirt and recreate.
The subtitle also infers scrutiny of what the acquisition and containment of private water do to the soul. It is not heartening. The starlets disporting themselves by pools of all shapes and sizes in Van Leeuwen's copious, funny but poorly presented illustrations look lonely and depersonalised enough. But they are outclassed in their isolation by the sinister anti-heroes of his story, Ludwig II of Bavaria and William Randolph Hearst. Those half-hydrophilic, half-hydrophobic ogres of private aquatics were the captains of a host of poor little rich men who liked not to swim but to flood holes in the ground as counterparts to their castles in the air, to escape, to dream, sometimes to float, but above all, to watch.
Watching is at the heart of Van Leeuwen's book. When it comes to water, he proposes, we divide between frogs and swans. Frogs are active, ungainly, noisy; swans are stately, cool, humourless and do not immerse themselves - they are on view. It is on the swans, avatars of a troubled eroticism, that he dwells the most. One would not be surprised if he were himself a non-swimmer. His fascination with the element derives from his native country, Holland, where water always threatens and must be kept at bay.
Underpinning the psychology and alongside a good measure of Hollywood tittle-tattle is an architectural tale freshly told, plotting the growth of places and spaces set apart for swimming from the Enlightenment to the present. For the non-initiate, there are some surprises. Van Leeuwen can be cursory on antiquity, because the Romans (and others) seldom did more than slosh about in their shallow frigidaria. Swimming out of more than necessity first catches on as a means of military training, for soldiers - not sailors. The basic form and discipline of the pool, with its lanes and its laps, are still rigorously regimented.
In the early 19th century, exertion in the water becomes medically popular. Van Leeuwen engages for a while with the ample public pools carved out of rivers at Paris, Vienna and elsewhere at that time. But our sleuth cannot hang around Europe long, because he must be off to America to review the privatisation of swimming. On the East Coast, this is mostly a matter of checking the architectural magazines for the long-lost casinos and semi-enclosed serapea of robber barons. Soon he has reached the West Coast with its open-air pools but obsessive privacy, where the voyeurism is more fun. You can hire a helicopter, Van Leeuwen tells us, you can go to parties and solicit introductions, you can bribe the pool-cleaning staff, or you can just trespass. Whatever you do, mind the dogs.
From these exhilarations, from the ephemera of concrete technology, and from stills and publicity shots, Van Leeuwen is able to track the rise and fall of the Californian swimming pool and its inevitable dependency upon Hollywood. For a time there was a sense of liberation, invention and daring about the type, as films revealed and celebrated bodies in movement and pools mimicked films. There were jungle-paradise pools, sybarite's pools, pools of homage (Hearst's pools were all for Marion Davies), Busby Berkeley-style pools for parties, kidneys, clover leafs, even a swimming river on Mary Astor's estate. Oddly, David Hockney, the great iconographer of the private swimming pool, is not mentioned. But it is all described with the shrewdness, indirection and world-weariness of a Gibbon. Now, concludes the author, people are frightened. Pools are dangerous, so low fences are put round the margin; diving is risky, water is scarce and polluted, insurance premiums are high. The swimming river is cracked and empty. Having banned the springboard, their children and even themselves, Californians now fill their pools with goldfish, koi or even sharks. Their real enemy, Van Leeuwen asseverates, is boredom. They and he could do worse than go back to the sea: which is never dull.
Andrew Saint is professor of architecture, University of Cambridge.
The Springboard in the Pond: An Intimate History of the Swimming Pool
Author - Thomas A. P. van Leeuwen
ISBN - 0 262 22059 8
Publisher - MIT Press
Price - £24.95
Pages - 321