The world’s best public swimming pools

Swimming pools, particularly outdoor pools, are in high demand everywhere from Bondi to Berlin and Copenhagen to Cornwall. Dominic Lutyens enters the pool and investigates its past, present, and future.

Public swimming pools have historically been democratic palaces of leisure in countries as far away as Iceland, Denmark, and the United Kingdom, as well as in cities such as Los Angeles, Sydney, Berlin, and Beijing. Many public pools and outdoor lidos in the United Kingdom have long been neglected, but they are now experiencing a revival as people rediscover the revitalising pleasures of swimming, particularly outdoors. As more community groups and councils recognise the value of lidos (outdoor swimming pools) and pools to local communities, many are being restored and modernised to meet 21st-century requirements.

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“A lot of work was done in the noughties advocating the return of the lido,” says Michael Wood, assistant professor in sport management at Northumbria University’s department of health and life sciences. “Over the years, I began to delve deeper to understand why we had so few pools in the UK despite the fact that they were so popular with the public.”

When outdoor swimming became popular in the UK in the 1930s, 169 lidos were built across the country as recreational facilities. This trend persisted into the 1940s and 1950s. “Their designs were grand, and they helped the communities develop a strong sense of place,” says Wood. “However, since the 1960s, fewer people have visited lidos.” partly as a result of the Wolfenden report on sport and community, which recommended that public pools be housed indoors in 1960. The seasonal nature of lidos was emphasised in a 1968 Sports Council report, Planning for Sport, which deemed them poor value for money. Outdoor pools had received less funding by the 1960s and were in disrepair.”

According to Wood, an increase in foreign travel has accelerated their decline. “UK lidos performed less well in comparison to countries with warmer climates where people were beginning to vacation.” However, the lido’s demise cannot be blamed solely on unpredictable British weather: “Countries such as the Netherlands, Germany, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland – with similar weather – have maintained outdoor pools and vibrant cultures,” says Wood.

By the 1960s, Icelandic lidos went ludic, emphasising play over sport, with the addition of hot tubs and gigantic slides.

Sundhöll (which means swimming palace) is an architecturally splendid, intact interwar and postwar pool in Reykjavik, Iceland, with a 25m-long pool designed by Gujón Samelsson and completed in 1937. Bathing Culture, an exhibition at the Museum of Design and Applied Art in Reykjavik, is currently celebrating Icelandic pools. The exhibition shows that by the 1960s, lidos had gone ludic, emphasising play over sport, with the addition of hot tubs and massive slides.

The ocean-facing Annenberg Community Beach House in Los Angeles was built in the 1920s for actress Marion Davies by her lover, William Randolph Hearst. It was restored and opened to the public in 2009, with a heated pool that flanks Santa Monica Beach. “The property was purchased by the State of California in 1959,” says Jan Dyer, principal of Studio-MLA, the firm that refurbished it. “After the 1994 Northridge earthquake damaged all of its structures, the City of Santa Monica took over operations in the 1990s and invited the public to reimagine its future. The Annenberg Foundation funding enabled the City to realise its vision of a year-round public beach house. The original pool was preserved but meticulously restored, with marble tiles either cleaned or replaced if damaged, and hand-painted decorative fish motifs on the pool’s bottom repaired. The children’s play area and surrounding new structures were designed by Studio-MLA, who also implemented sustainable strategies to reduce light pollution and energy consumption.”

In the United Kingdom, a renewed interest in lidos began in the 2000s with the publication of books such as Janet Smith’s Liquid Assets: The Lidos and Open Air Swimming Pools of Britain and Emma Pusill and Janet Wilkinson’s The Lido Guide. “Several old lidos are scheduled to re-open this year in the UK, including Britain’s oldest example, Cleveland Pools in Bath,” says Wood. “Another in Hull is expected in 2023, and we can expect 20-30 new public outdoor pools by 2030, bringing the total number of public lidos in the UK to around 130 to 160.”–2022–quick-study-tips

Municipal pools, such as Moseley Road Baths in Balsall Heath, Birmingham, built in 1907, and the Art Deco seawater lido Jubilee Pool in Penzance, Cornwall – so-named because it opened in 1935 to commemorate King George V’s Silver Jubilee celebrations – were once impressive, large-scale amenities until they fell into disrepair. The former is being renovated, while the latter has been completely renovated.

Moseley Road Baths, an ornate building designed by William Hale and Son, nearly closed a few years ago due to high repair costs. The structure once served a variety of practical purposes, including laundry washing and individual bathing at a time when many homes lacked bathrooms. Condensation and airborne chemicals had caused decay in the cast-iron arches spanning the width of the 75ft by 35ft Gala Pool over time. However, conservation architects Donald Insall Associates recently renovated them (also responsible for restoring the Ancient Roman thermal springs and Cleveland Pools, both in Bath).

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