Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Let’s clear the air over our city pools
Elizabeth Farrelly, Elizabeth Farrelly is an architecture writer and until recently manager, special projects, at the City of Sydney
In Sydney public baths are not just about swimming. Elizabeth Farrelly dives in the deep end.
There is an Updike story that charts the progress of a relationship from the point of view of the family pool. As the marriage deteriorates, so the greeblies multiply, until slime is the pool’s sole remaining attribute.
A similar metaphor applies at the civic level, the city’s pools offering a millpond reflection of its dominant political values.
In fact, despite our national pool-hero thing, it’s surprisingly hard to get a decent swim in Sydney. Leaving aside the traditional sea-edge jobs (Dawn Fraser, Redleaf, Coogee and so on) which are an ingenious institution and fabulously cheap to run but exclude most of us most of the time for simple cowardice reasons, Sydney is by no means oversupplied with public pools. Most European cities, relying less on nature and demanding more of government, are far better equipped.
The City of Sydney, despite its near-quadrupling of residential numbers, has only three pools Andrew Boy Charlton (ABC), Prince Alfred and Cook and Phillip.
Of these, two are closed for most of the year, leaving Cook and Phillip so swamped by demand, its available aqua area so truncated by fee-paying squads of fat ladies and polo boys doing the arcane things that they do, that your luckless lap-swimmer spends most of her time turning around. Plus, it’s underground. Do what you will with stylish architecture and inventive aqua-lighting, C&P is a pool in a cave, with acoustics and air quality to match.
That’s OK. The C&P equation was about maximising parkland, so the pool went under. I accept that. But the more general move to enclose Sydney’s pools, and the underlying assumption that only covered pools are viable whatever the v-word really means when applied to a community service is wrong and should be resisted.
The best remaining pools in Sydney are the outdoor ones, two of which Victoria Park, in South Sydney and North Sydney in, well, North Sydney are now heated and open (to both sky and public) all year round.
This may sound extravagant. And in some climates, perhaps it is. At London’s Endell Street pool, for instance, you can swim with snow falling from an ink-black sky into bath-temperature water.
In Sydney, though, even in winter, dragonflies hover and sun shines. Crazy not to enjoy the former, and use the latter.
North Sydney, at 122 possibly Sydney’s oldest remaining pool, has recently enjoyed a nip and tuck to the tune of $6 million by Hassell architects. Stepping if anything a little too respectfully around the heritage bits, Hassell designers of Olympic Park’s most lovable feature, its railway station have gone, nonetheless, for strategic contrast. Just as well, one might wryly note, given that conforming with the pool’s vilely variegated brickwork (yup, vile is the word, let’s face it) would challenge any architect worth feeding.
The result, strikingly faithful to the 1997 drawings, underlines Sydney’s emphatic return to modernism-as-style.
The bulk of the work is in two glassy new pavilions, running along the top and the north edge of the site and housing a fun pool and a restaurant, respectively.
Each pavilion has a very dominant planar roof the pool hall’s being light-slotted and floating while the restaurant roof is supported, compositionally as well as structurally, by a black Mies-meets-de-Stijl frame. It’s simple, practical and solar-assisted.
The Hassell design is also strategically irresistible (placing the pool at the head of the site rather than its foot, as suggested in the brief), coolly romantic (the dematerialised walls leaving only multiple planes of water cascading down to sea level), and undeniably handsome, providing a welcome stylistic foil to a closer-than-intended view of Martin Sharpe’s face.
Victoria Park and Prince Alfred Park are ’50s pools, all-but-simultaneous products of the health-and-sport fad surrounding the ’56 Melbourne Olympics.
Almost 40 years later Vic Park, the first-born and heartier twin, took the plunge into all-year heating and winter opening. More recently still, in recognition of its changing constituency, the pool has employed Michael Davies architects for a major revamp, keeping the openness and transparency, as well as the ’50s feel, but adding a gym, creche and goggle-shop.
More importantly, Vic Park has become latte-capable. Whole tribes of some-time yuppies gather wetly now at this fashionable, familial breakfast nook.
One might yet quibble with the detention-centre fencing not really a good look but the combined effect so far is a 38 per cent increase in patronage, with expectations of breaking even within a couple of years.
Compare the long-undernourished Prince Alfred, conditioned by neglect and now, as punishment, threatened with closure.
A Lord Mayor’s minute to the City Council on August 31 proposed that because it is “unheated and requires substantial and costly maintenance” (read 20 years of neglect), because “patronage is heavily dependent on good weather” (an overcast sky sends everyone to Vic Park), and because it “will need a major capital injection if it is to remain open”, the pool should be demolished and replaced with a skateboard ramp, car parking and a 25-metre indoor pool (useful for private money-spinnin
g). All this is “subject to council’s contribution not exceeding $2 million” (read private operator provides substantial funding and gets to call the shots).
The Andrew Boy Charlton Pool, although also run down, is conspicuously luckier. A design competition has been held, and won by Lippmann Associates. Plans are to demolish it and build a new 50-metre outdoor pool (open to the harbour in the way the pool should always have been and never was) as well as a 20-metre pool, toddlers’ pool, cafe and meeting rooms, all layered up in a gorgeous glassy stack above the harbour. Regrettably, though, the new pool will be unheated and strictly seasonal, since in the City of Sydney unlike North or South Sydney winter opening of outdoor pools is deemed “not viable”.
And then there’s the proposed Ultimo Aquatic Centre, still just a gleam, for which a design competition has just been launched. Actually building the centre is another thing entirely, and will be heavily budget-dependent. But the brief calls for 50-metre, 25-metre, hydrotherapy and toddlers’ pools, along with the usual array of gyms and cafes, all to be housed indoors on the site of the burnt-out AML&F woolstore in Harris Street, opposite the Ultimo Community Centre. The brief is quite particular about air quality, but why enclose this stuff at all, when there’s sun and air to be had for free? And why, for that matter, demolish one 50-metre pool to build three new ones a few kilometres away?
In the end, of course, it’s not about swimming. It’s about politics. The Boy Charlton pool’s new glamorous future was a sop to Sydney’s influential gay push, so miffed four years ago over the Cook and Phillip proposal. North Sydney pool is supremely apparent, snuggled between two of Sydney’s favourite heritage icons and patronised by persons in high places. It is also one of the few Sydney pools, according to North Sydney mayor Genia McCaffery, which has “never run at a loss”. And Ultimo must have an aquatic centre (not just a pool) because, after years of redevelopment and despite all the promises, from all levels of government, it is now dramatically overbuilt, starved of re-creation facilities and stuffed with new city voters.
Prince Alfred Park, on the other hand, will endure continuing neglect as victim of the gerrymander, a curious city-edge blip surrounded, and used, by South Sydney voters, many of them from voiceless Redfern and Waterloo. The only hope for Prince Alfred Park Pool and for the park itself is to be declared an orphan asset and adopted by South Sydney Council. Why not give it away, Frank?
Two Illus: North Sydney pool (above) and Victoria Park pool …
heated and open all year round.
Photo (above): Sahlan Hayes.