Artist’s impression of Studio Octopi’s proposed Thames Baths swimming scheme at Blackfriars Bridge

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Last week I joined a raft (the collective noun) of urban swimmers in the Thames, all of us aware of how frequently we travel over, under, and sometimes on our river, but very rarely take the plunge into it.

It wasn’t always so. A century ago, floating “bath palaces” peppered our cities’ rivers, with hundreds in New York, Copenhagen and across England, including a 135ft x 25ft facility by Charing Cross Bridge (also known as Hungerford Bridge). Yet these schemes sank as our fear of pollution surfaced, and we abandoned the possibilities of swimming au naturel, preferring indoor pools instead.

Now a new wave is emerging, an alfresco zeitgeist, re-engaging us with our cities’ water. The depth, breadth and vision of the schemes at the Urban Plunge exhibition at Roca London Gallery in Fulham this month includes projects, both realised and fantasy, in London, Copenhagen and New York. All pose questions about urban environments, sustainable living and water scarcity, and are created by visionaries glimpsing the magic our cities are missing.

Baths at Charing Cross Bridge, 1875

While London tries to maximise every square metre of dry land, its main artery is neglected. Designer Thomas Heatherwick’s planned Garden Bridge (a pedestrian bridge that will connect Temple to the South Bank), for all its many benefits, will do little to alter this as its estimated 30,000 daily visitors head north/south, not interacting with the river beneath it any more than they did before.

Architects Studio Octopi’s Thames Baths proposal, meanwhile, aims to reconnect the Thames to its city flanks, the baths being an extension of the foreshore rather than a “pool” floating in the water. The scheme is a series of landscapes: layering distinct experiences for different people, mirroring the diversity of urban parks – tidal pools and rock baths, at water level or on stilts, surrounded by reeds or rocks, flora and wildlife clinging to what the curator of Urban Plunge, Jane Withers, calls the unexplored “underworld” between river and embankment. Octopi admits the schemes are still future visions, but insists they are achievable.

CGI of Family and PlayLab’s plus-shaped pool, New York

An alternative architectural approach is Family & PlayLab’s +Pool in New York – a standalone, plus-shaped pool – a translation, in both scale and concept, of a New York block intersection into the Hudson. This “tile-by-tile” crowdfunded civic architecture project – the pipe dream of two imaginative New Yorkers mid-recession – inspired engineering firm Arup and, more recently, Google to lend their support.

Whatever their landscape differences, the Urban Plunge projects’ common denominator is that we are at water level, part of the river, not a floating barge or raised bank.

The King’s Cross Pond Club offers a contrasting urban swimming experience. Located at the centre of a brownfield, construction site, this pond unlocks public use of a private, dehumanised space in transition. For its creators, architects Ooze and artist Marjetica Potrc, a building site epitomises the city in flux. The pond is purified through wetland plants, without chemicals, encouraging an awareness of nature through swimming. It is a cycle: the number of people bathing each day is limited by the plants’ cleaning efficiency, humans in equilibrium with nature’s abilities, “a symbolic act for the balance of living in a sustainable city”.

CGI of King’s Cross Pond Club’s natural bathing pool

Notwithstanding the project’s temporary nature, on land promised to another future use, Ooze inspires optimism about how our cities could – and should – evolve around water: “all life cycles start in water, then move from water to land, and then gradually bigger and higher. The landscape should be a ‘mise en scène’ of these processes.”

All the architects agree that the biggest battle, beyond engineering feats, is public perception of cleanliness. Copenhagen, which has several “harbour baths”, did not succeed overnight: urban swimming is part of the city’s larger, holistic picture of wellbeing, where public space is reclaimed and outdoor living encouraged.

The new harbour bath at Kalvebod Brygge, Copenhagen

London enthusiasts insist that, despite sewerage scares, the Thames was far filthier a century ago. Instead of fleeing to indoor, heated pools, “wild” swimming enables us to engage with the skyline and the muscles and bones of our city outdoors, in natural, chemical-free water.

PlayLab believes enhanced understanding is key to reconnecting with the water: recognising its “bad days” after heavy rainfall and celebrating its cleaner days.

The +Pool Dashboard, created in collaboration with Google, enables anybody to track the Hudson’s water quality, measuring key “swimmability” parameters at 15-minute intervals including temperature, rainfall, salinity, dissolved oxygen, turbidity and chlorophyll.

London is only a stroke behind: its mayor, Boris Johnson, hopes the Thames will attract 12m “commuters and leisure travellers” by 2020. Totally Thames, which takes place throughout September, is a celebration of the river, featuring arts, music and community festivals together with regattas and river races.

In response to river-swimming proposals, the mayor’s office has commissioned a feasibility study to consult with the Port of London Authority and others, assessing tides, increased river traffic and possibilities for filtration. The PLA’s bylaws are valid: without designated swimming areas, the Thames is simply not ready for an influx of swimmers. Yet.

CGI of Tredje Natur’s proposed House of Water design in Copenhagen

Another exhibitor is Copenhagen-based Tredje Natur. Its “House of Water”, a floating “learning landscape”, is described as a “utopian hybrid” for the next generation of baths, “sensorally and intellectually” engaging with water. It is captivatingly futuristic and, alongside the other comparatively simple schemes, speculates just how advanced we could be if we hadn’t neglected our urban waterways for so long.

Withers, founder of the Wonderwater initiative and an “aquaholic”, has dedicated years to promoting water awareness. From the 1% Water and Our Future exhibition in Belgium in 2008 to a Wonderwater pop-up café event as part of London Design Festival in 2012, where a “water footprint” was charted against the menu, she says design is the solution to re-engaging with water.

In the past, water’s sacredness was usually dictated by religion, mythology and culture. Yet Withers says that we are losing this connection with water’s meaning and, in doing so, escalating its neglect. She adds: “We settled by rivers, we turned them into sewers.”

This year, artist Amy Sharrocks set up the “Museum of Water” at Somerset House, London, encouraging people to bring water – of all shapes and sizes – with a story, challenging our reconnection with water’s tangibility.

Sharrocks’s previous project “Swim” (2007) involved 50 people swimming across London from Tooting Bec Lido to Hampstead Heath. The only bit of water they passed but could not swim in was the Thames.

An Amy Sharrocks piece for ‘Museum of Water’

In her upcoming book Downstream: A History of Swimming the Thames, Caitlin Davies articulates how long we have been Thames-swimming and just how organised it used to be: from swimming galas to bathing pools, including the 800ft-long Tower Bridge Pleasure Beach. Davies is watching Studio Octopi’s success with keen anticipation, aware that today’s designs unwittingly resonate with what has been done in the past.

Can this current trend for outdoor swimming match the enthusiasm of the 1930s, a decade that saw more than 160 lidos constructed in the UK?

This movement proposes something more advanced than just pools to bathe in: it challenges our engagement with water, the urban landscape and our sustainable city.

The exhibition’s projects are by no means exhaustive and there are countless examples of similar urban plunging schemes – existing and upcoming – in Helsinki, Montreal, Reykjavik, and Dublin, to name a few.

Urban Plunge is a chance to consider not just how we use our city, but how we reclaim it; not just how we use water but how we value it; and not just how we access water but how we humanise it.

‘Urban Plunge’ at the Roca London Gallery runs from Thursday to January 10; rocalondongallery.com

Swimmers’ wild life

Wild swimming has an illustrious history. Here are five notable names who have taken the urban plunge, writes Saskia Rumbelow.

Chairman Mao in the Yangtze

King Charles II swam in the river Thames at 5am every day. Benjamin Franklin, a founding father of the US, was also a keen swimmer. On a visit to London in 1726, “I stripped and leaped into the river [Thames],” wrote Franklin, “and swam from near Chelsea to Blackfryar’s [sic], performing on the way many feats of activity, both upon and under water.”

In 1818, the poet Byron swam from the Lido to Venice. “I had been in the water, by my watch, without help or rest, and never touching ground or boat, for four hours and 20 minutes,” he recalled in a letter.

Mercedes Gleitze became the first woman to swim the English Channel (1927), after training in the Thames. And in 1966, Chairman Mao Zedong, aged 72, took a dip in the Yangtze. Accompanied by giant portraits of himself, he swam (or drifted with the current) for about 10 miles.

Images: Studio Octopi/Picture Plane; Bridgeman; +Pool; Ooze; Julien Lanoo/JDS Architects; AFP

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