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June 10, 2011 10:00 pm

The swimmer

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Christopher Woodward

Christopher Woodward diving in to one of the five pools on his journey

At dawn I dived off the steps of the house the collector and circus impresario John Ringling built on the Florida shore in the 1920s. It was designed to be a Venetian palazzo and the sun glinting on the marble conjured up pictures of Byron swimming back to his palace on the Grand Canal, and to a tousle-haired beauty standing on the steps. Byron was threatened with pistols and swords by husbands and fathers. I was “escorted from the scene” by a security guard in an electric golf cart.

At Ninfa, south of Rome, you can dive into the spring and swim under rose-covered bridges. Actually, you can’t – or rather you’re not supposed to: a guide waited on the opposite bank, hands on her stout hips. It’s always the English who want to swim, she said, and fare il picnic.

There is a thrill to swimming where you shouldn’t. And, I began to wonder, is swimming a new way to discover gardens? I have been working with the designer Tom Stuart-Smith on an exhibition of his work, and it was striking how in so many of the sketches in his portfolio a pool has been placed at the centre.

Ten years ago a pool in a country house garden would be placed behind a hedge. Today it takes centre stage. Clients who have been on holiday to Sri Lanka or Mustique know how beautiful pools can be. Tom explained that they are not just rectangles dug out of the ground and tiled in blue.

Last month I swam (by arrangement) through five pools at houses in the south of England. Like Roger Deakin (whose aquatic tour of the UK, titled Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey through Britain, is now a modern classic), I was inspired by John Cheever’s cult story The Swimmer, in which a Connecticut financier is inspired to swim home through a chain of his neighbour’s pools. In 1968 it was made into a film staring Burt Lancaster. Ned Merrill, the protagonist, strides into the frame as a heroic figure but ends the day a broken man – each pool dissolves an illusion – and the story’s power is in the relationship between water and land, clothes and nakedness, reality and delusion.

I began the day at 5.30am with an extra pool, out of loyalty: my local lido in London Fields, Hackney, where I train 3km each morning. (Buoyed by swimming the Hellespont and the Strait of Messina I and a group of friends – in a flurry of rash, late-night e-mails – have booked a crossing of the Straits of Gibraltar.) This 50-metre lido was built in the 1930s, the last great era of open-air swimming, public and private, when Sir Philip Sassoon commissioned a neo-Roman fantasy at Port Lympne and at Longridge House in Devon an Olympic-length pool lapped up to a classical temple. The only clue to the identity of the absent owners at the first private pool was the word “Frago” chiselled into a marble column. The glass and thatch poolhouse was designed by the architect Kathryn Findlay of Ushida Findlay, whose synthesis of traditional materials and contemporary design achieved through digital technology – and inspired by working in Japan – has been dubbed “Future-rustic”. The poolhouse is inseparable from the garden designed by Jonathan Bell, who planted “great cushions of evergreen herbs” in response to the “voluptuousness” of her design. Waving grasses form a veil between the glass wall and the valley, feather-tipped by the sun.

A second pool, a second enigma. I’d heard rumours of a classical pool whose centrepiece is a statue of Immanuel Kant. The gates swooshed open, and the drive gave a fleeting glimpse of a new garden by Rupert Golby, created in collaboration with a client who wished to synthesise the grand formal tradition of gardens such as Lady Salisbury’s Hatfield House with the elusive, romantic atmosphere of Alain-Fournier’s novel Le Grand Meaulnes. It was just a glimpse. The pool has been placed in the old walled garden, and the changing room is in the arch of a new pavilion inspired by an 18th-century Arcadian folly, the terrace of Praeneste at Rousham. This is perhaps the most epic open-air private pool built since the 1930s. It is also the location of Britain’s only statue of Kant, commissioned from Alexander Stoddart in 2002.

As I swam round Kant’s stern figure, hunched in a toga, the reflection of a butler with a tray of biscuits appeared in the black water; the lining is the colour of basalt. La Viscomtesse studied philosophy at Oxford, the butler explained, Kant was her favourite philosopher.

Third, Petworth, where the garden designer Lady Caroline Egremont lives with her husband the writer Max. Capability Brown’s landscape garden is cared for by the National Trust but the private walled vegetable garden has been transformed by Lady Caroline into a succession of secret gardens, each designed with a character of its own, as if sonnets of horticultural poetry: verbascum in gravel, roses winding round apple trees, and a pergola of white wisteria which makes you gasp at its beauty. It took 15 years for the hedges around the pool garden to reach their height and, in a touch reminiscent of a Sussex neighbour, the surrealist Edward James, the changing rooms and benches are cut out of yew. The pool was unheated and the scene has a touch of manly, literary glamour: you can imagine Patrick Leigh-Fermor, the writer and guest, cooling his ankles at the waterside.

By mid-afternoon I reached Moor Hatches, near Amesbury, where four years ago Guy and Juliette Mead commissioned Tom Stuart-Smith to make a “modern parterre”. Juliette listed her favourite plants, and set out the family’s lifestyle: with four children a pool was a must. It should be in the centre of the garden, and big enough (21 metres) to race and play water polo.

For designer and client the challenge was to integrate a busy, bright rectangle of water into the combination of modern geometry, weathered materials and naturalistic planting which has won Stuart-Smith eight Gold Medals at the Chelsea Flower Show. Juliette made a study tour to South Africa, visiting 20 pools. One discovery was Marbelite, a plaster lining which has been mixed in the subtle greens and greys of a river bed.

The pool leads up to a meadow, at the bottom of which is the River Avon. I had never seen flowers so close to a pool: breathing from side to side, between strokes, you turn to see salvia Blauhugel, amsonia, iris White City and clumps of sporobolus grass.

The day ended at Naunton in the Cotswolds, beside the first gush of the River Windrush. Michael and Angela Cronk bought The Old Vicarage and commissioned Dan Pearson to make a new garden around the 17th-century house. Angela was drawn to Pearson by the sensitivity to plants and places expressed in his writing. His work begins with a discussion of the character of a place which is historical, ecological, but also intuitive. He gave the house space, opening up a terrace wide enough to balance the façade, and a drive in which under the dark trees are shapes and shades of a multiplicity of greens, tipped with white. Trees were felled to reconnect with the valley, and strawberries grow between the cracks in the path which threads its way to the pool.

For the Cronks and their daughters, a busy, laughing pool was also a must. It has been placed in an area of newly planted squares of meadow. Again, the answer was to research specialist craftsmen, not to ring up a pool contractor: for my final dive my toes rested on a moulded edge of local stone, and the bottom of the pool was a soft, deep grey. I splashed through ripples of reflected sunset. Across the lawn the first drink of the day waited.

I reflected on what it takes to design a garden: an architect’s spatial imagination and suppleness with clients. A writer’s sensitivity to place. Half a lifetime’s knowledge of plants. And, uniquely, the extra dimension of Time. The designer must imagine the changes in light from day to day; how the plants will grow, and wilt, from season to season – and year to year. The garden designer is the only designer who can see into the future.

Christopher Woodward is director of London’s Garden Museum which is currently holding an exhibition of Tom Stuart-Smith’s gardens www.gardenmuseum.org.uk

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Cool pools: the sexy, the sparkly and the sinister

The shimmering back-yard pools of New England that Burt Lancaster swam through in Hollywood’s version of The Swimmer became the image of a suburban dream gone sour, a symbol of superficial pleasure revealing at its bottom a world of ennui and a surface sparkle concealing something unseen and sinister, writes Edwin Heathcote.

It is a familiar film trope. Think of the beginning of Sunset Boulevard, the revelation of the narrator’s own body floating, face down in the pool, or of the extraordinary beginning of Sexy Beast in which an over-tanned Ray Winstone watches as a boulder crashes into his Spanish villa’s pool, or of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, finding a moment’s refuge from the inane small-talk at his own graduation party at the bottom of a suburban pool.

This most obvious symbol of wealth and success, the pool is surprisingly also a sign of the sinister. There’s nothing new here. For much of its history it has been intimately linked with sex, whether in the decadent bath houses of Rome or the Turkish baths of London, which became notorious homosexual pick-up joints. The dark corners, arcades and steamy domes of the classical bathhouse made them mysterious; the baths at Bath reveal a place as much temple as temperate pool.

Everything changed with modernism. The architects of the 1920s were obsessed with a healthy lifestyle, with sun and exercise. The pool became the central motif of a new modernist lifestyle. Outdoor lidos sprang up across the world, their clean, white-tiled surfaces emphasising their hygiene – washing away the sins of a polluted past with the waters of the new.

The modernist pool, whether on a roof terrace or in a landscaped garden, was a de rigueur addition to a villa, what a fountain would have been to a Georgian country house. The postwar era brought a louche loosening of style, the arrival of amoeboid and kidney-shaped pools, a west coast aesthetic exemplified in the seductive glass houses of Palm Springs. Julius Shulman’s gorgeous photos, most notably of Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House, show the pool on top of the city, swimmers at the apogee of style. More recently Rem Koolhaas, a keen swimmer himself, updated the rooftop pool in the Villa d’Alva in Paris while Peter Zumthor (architect of the forthcoming Serpentine pavilion in London) revived the pool as ancient cult-space in his baths at Vals in the Swiss Alps.

“Nothing ever looks emptier” wrote Raymond Chandler “than an empty swimming pool.” But full, sunlit and sparkling, it is one of architecture’s most expressive and versatile tools.

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