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Water World

Presents excerpts from the book 'The Springboard in the Pond: An
Intimate History of the Swimming Pool.'

Swimming pools are a hallmark of American life. Indeed, there are more pools in the U.S. than in the rest of the world. As Thomas A. P. van Leeuwen, professor of Architectural History and Criticism at the University of Leyden, the Netherlands, makes clear in his new book The Springboard in the Pond, these watery basins serve as playgrounds, gymnasiums, Edenic sanctuaries, reflective oases and, of course, stares symbols. They are purely decorative and sublimely practical. But what is the psychological impulse that leads us to build these water worlds?

"The pool is the architectural outcome of man's desire to become one with the element of water, privately and free of danger. A swim in the pool is a complex and curious activity, one that oscillates between joy and fear, between domination and submission, for the swimmer delivers himself with controlled abandonment to the forces of gravity, resulting in sensations of weightlessness and timelessness."

"Springboards are launching pads for the swimmer's eternal game with death. The embrace of water is an erotic one, yet at the same time its cool fingers presage the immediacy of mortality. Eros and Thanatos occupy the two antithetical components of the complex sensation that we call swimming, with diving as its most radical extension, for whereas the swimmer challenges fate, the diver insults and bullies it."

"Man's ambivalent attitudes towards water are reflected in the many styles of pools and the uses to which they are put. Hydrophilic man uses a pool for swimming, and frequently gets access by means of a diving board. Hydrophobic man employs the pool for anything except swimming, often organizing parties around it, having musicians play amid it, or floating upon it himself via inflatable beasts and small vessels that keep it from touching him directly. Hydro-opportunistic man uses water only when he wants to achieve specific, water related goals; lacking the irresistible longing of hydrophilic man, he needs other incentives--all sorts of playful, profitable, even hazardous challenges--for entering the water. For him the pool is not the end but the voyage, the cushion for a fast ride on the aquachute."

"Pools can be typologically different--rectangular, circular, kidney-shaped and so forth and each may have its own social, psychological and aesthetic dimensions. Two military powers of the early 19th century, Austria-Hungary and Prussia restructured swimming according to the rules of the exercise field: marching in straight lines and turning in sharp angles. Natural irregularity and freedom were deemed inimical to the development of the martial spirit. That spirit reverberates in today's standard 1:2 rectangle pool; the swimmer is restricted to straight laps, and turns are executed with the same crispness as the about-faces of the marching drill. It is the pool as aquatic parade ground."

Excerpts from The Springboard in the Pond: An Intimate History of the Swimming Pool by Thomas A. P. van Leeuwen (The MIT Press, 1999)

PHOTOS (COLOR): Water World