Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
A rocky road to pool of culture
E. M. Farrelly
ONE of the grimmest achievements of modernism, through this century, has been its shearing of public buildings – libraries, schools, universities, even concert halls – back to bare, utilitarian essentials. This was done for aesthetic, as much as economic, purposes, but a side-effect has been the loss of the penumbral meanings which add dignity and a sense of occasion to the otherwise mundane business of getting a book, or an education.
Public swimming pools have suffered more than most from this reductionist malaise. The association of the public pool with a generalised concrete-and-wire Dachau aesthetic is now so complete that one forgets it was not always so. The tradition of public swimming, from first-century Rome to 19th-century Europe, presumes a view of sport not as brute sweating and heaving, but as an integral part of societal culture. The third-century Baths of Caracalla, for instance, offered (to wealthy white chaps, anyway) saunas, pools and gyms, but also a choice of reading rooms, picture galleries, wine bars and scented gardens for discourse and contemplation among fountains and fine sculpture.
This omnivorous hedonism sounds so Sydney it’s surprising there aren’t dozens of them around. But Sydney suffers a dearth of pools that are even tolerable, much less enchanting – the theory being, no doubt, that you have your own, live seaside, or both. There is definitely room in Sydney’s cultural firmament for an imagination-enriched rethink of the public dip.
With its Leisure Garden and conference facilities, the new Philip Cox-designed Aquatic Centre at Homebush is a step, however small, in this direction. The name itself suggests as much, deriving from the advent in America (of course), a decade or so ago, of the themed Leisure Centre, much-touted as a panacea for the hordes of nextmillennium unemployeds who, it was said, will miraculously possess both the time and the wherewithal to patronise same.
It was always a fragile argument, but there is no doubting how the hordes feel about the Homebush Aquatic Centre, as the stream of comers and goers issuing from the building’s curious rock-lined mouth attests.
The centre comprises a collection of pools, from dead-serious Olympic to jelly-form fun stuff. Cox has done his best to unify these less-than-natural nesting partners within a single form, snuggled around to the south and east by a high semi-circular earth berm. During the two crucial weeks, and upon removal of the rear wall, the berm will double as seating support for the multitude.
This was a smart answer to an impossible problem, offering also the dramatic possibility of tunnelling the main entrance to the pool, moving the public through middle-earth gloom into airiness and light, only slightly chlorine-flavoured. The rough rock lining was intended no doubt to enhance this special spatial effect, but its undisguisedly stuck-on nature (what public authority could risk a real stone vault?) takes the aesthetic alarmingly closer to 1960s fireplace than Hall-of-the-Mountain-King.
In other respects, too, despite some good ideas and the immense popularity of the place, the architecture seems unresolved. In plan, for instance, the building presents as a huge semi-circle, its form completed by the pleasantly palmy garden. The internal arrangement, though, is wholly orthogonal, apart from those amoebic fun-pools at one end. This means that the entrance tunnel, so full-frontal a gesture, hits the semi-circle radially, but oddly off-centre and off-axis.
The building’s most flamboyant formal gesture is a huge, white, catenary truss which, being visible from the freeway, will no doubt form the building’s logo. Its purpose is to allow the crucial two-week protrusion of Olympic seating through the back wall, when The Time finally comes.
A smart move, functionally, but it’s on the wrong wall, radiating expansiveness from the very part of the building – its earthbound southern arc – which must read as emphatically closed for the darkness-to-light theme to operate. The north wall, which should open brilliantly to the garden, is all hemmed up.
There are other contradictions, too: the direct clash between roof-ties wrapped to read as medieval buttresses and a style whose sole central idea is the skeletonisation of structure; or between the high-tech look, the Ur-entrance and the “Aboriginal” paving patterns; or, on a larger scale, between the green games idea and the reality of an Olympic precinct designed with a motorway mindset.
None of this detracts from the popularity of the thing, nor should it. But as the Romans showed, it is possible to civilise sport. Fringed with shops, offices and eateries, stadiums can be part of cities, just as sport can be part of culture. Why do we still insist on these isolated poached-egg arenas, requiring a dedicated trip, offering a single activity and accessible only by car?
Two illus: Curious … the mouth of the Aquatic Centre leading to palms and pools (left).
Photographs by SAHLAN HAYES