The Story of the Pool (1978)
FROM DELIRIOUS NEW YORK
In the appendix to Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas’s retroactive manifesto for the island of Manhattan, the tacit logic of ‘Manhattanism’ is set free from its origins in the form of five architectural projects: The City of the Captive Globe, Hotel Sphinx, New Welfare Island, the Welfare Palace Hotel and the Floating Pool. Four of these projects are depicted in drawings now in the Drawing Matter collection, all of which differ from the versions printed in the original publication. Click on each title to view the text alongside the DM drawing.
At school one day, a student designed a floating swimming pool. Nobody remembered who it was. The idea had been in the air. Others were designed flying cities, spherical theaters, whole artificial planets. Someone had to invent the floating swimming pool. The floating pool – an enclave of purity in contaminated surroundings – seemed a first step, modest yet radical, in a gradual program of improving the world through architecture. To prove the strength of the idea, the architecture students decided to build a prototype in their spare time. Two seemingly endless linear locker rooms formed its long sides – one for men, the other for women. At either end was a glass lobby with two transparent walls; one wall exposed the healthy, sometimes exciting underwater activities in the pool, and the other fish agonising in polluted water. It was thus a truly dialectical room, used for physical exercise, artificial sunbathing and socialising between the almost naked swimmers.
The prototype became the most popular structure in the history of Modern Architecture. Due to the chronic Soviet labour shortage, the architects/builders were also the lifeguards. One day they discovered that if they swarm in unison – in regular synchronised laps from one end of the pool to the other – the pool would begin to move slowly in the opposite direction. They were amazed at this involuntary locomotion; actually, it was explained by a simple law of physics: action = reaction.
In the early thirties, the political situation, which had once stimulated projects such as the pool, became rigid, even ominous. A few years later still (the pool was quite rusty now, but popular as ever), the ideology it represented became suspect. An idea such as the pool, its shiftiness, its almost invisible presence, the iceberg-like quality of its submerged social activity, all these became suddenly subversive.
In a secret meeting, the architects/lifeguards decided to use the pool as a vehicle for their escape to freedom. Through the by now well rehearsed method of auto-propulsion, they could go anywhere in the world where there was water. It was only logical that they wanted to go to America, especially New York. In a way, the pool was a Manhattan block realised in Moscow, which would now reach its logical destination.
Early one morning in the Stalinist thirties, the architects directed the pool away from Moscow by swimming their relentless laps in the direction of the golden onions of the Kremlin.
NEW YORK, 1976
A rotating schedule gave each lifeguard/architect a turn at the command of the ‘ship’ (an opportunity rejected by some hard-core anarchists, who preferred the anonymous integrity of continuous swimming to such responsibilities).
After four decades of crossing the Atlantic, their swimsuits (front and back panels were exactly the same, a standardisation following a 1922 edict to simplify and accelerate production) had almost disintegrated. Over the years, they had converted some sectors of the locker room/corridor into ‘rooms’ with improvised hammocks, etc. It was amazing how, after 40 years at sea, relationships between the men had not stabilised but continued to display a volatility familiar from Russian novels; just before arriving in the New World, there had been a flare-up of hysteria which the architects/swimmers had been unable to explain, except as a delayed reaction to their collective middle age.
They cooked on a primitive stove, living on supplies of preserved cabbage and tomatoes, and on the fish they found each daybreak washed into the pool by the Atlantic’s waves. (Although captive, these fish were hard to catch due to the pool’s immensity.)
When they finally arrived, they hardly noticed it – they had to swim away from where they wanted to go, toward what they wanted to get away from. It was strange how familiar Manhattan was to them. They had always dreamed of stainless-steel Chryslers and flying Empire States. At school, they had even much bolder visions, of which, ironically, the pool (almost invisible – practically submerged in the pollution of the East River) was proof: with the clouds reflected in its surface, it was more than a Skyscraper – it was a patch of heaven here on earth.
Only the Zeppelins they had seen crossing the Atlantic with infuriating velocity 40 years before were missing. They had expected them to hover over the Metropolis like a dense cloud drift of weightless whales.
When the pool docked near Wall Street, the architects/swimmers/lifeguards were shocked at the uniformity (dress, behaviour) of their visitors, who swamped the craft in a brute rush through the lockers and showers, completely ignoring the instructions of the superintendents.
Had Communism reached America while they were crossing the Atlantic? they wondered in horror. This was exactly what they had swum all this time to avoid, this crudeness, lack of individuality, which did not even disappear when all the businessmen stepped out of their Brooks Brothers suits. (Their unexpected circumcisions contributed to this impression in the eyes of the provincial Russians.)
They took off again in shock, directing the pool further upstream: a rusty salmon, ready – finally – to spawn?
3 MONTHS LATER
The architects of New York were uneasy about the sudden influx of Constructivists (some quite famous, others long thought to have been exiled to Siberia – if not executed – after Frank Lloyd Wright visited the USSR in 1937 and betrayed his Modern colleagues in the name of Architecture).
The New Yorkers did not hesitate to criticize the design of the pool. They were all against Modernism now; ignoring the spectacular decline of their profession, their own increasingly pathetic irrelevance, their desperate production of flaccid country mansions, the limp suspense of their trite complexities, the dry taste of their fabricated poetry, the agonies of their irrelevant sophistication, they complained that the pool was so bland, so rectilinear, so unadventurous, so boring; there were no historical allusions; there was no decoration; there was no … shear, no tension, no wit – only straight lines, right angles and the drab colour of rust.
(In its ruthless simplicity, the pool threatened them – like a thermometer that might be inserted in their projects to take the temperature of their decadence.)
Still, to have Constructivism over with, the New Yorkers decided to give their so-called colleagues a collective medal at a discreet waterside ceremony. Against the background of the skyline, the dapper spokesman of New York’s architects gave a gracious speech. The medal had an old inscription from the thirties, he reminded the swimmers. It was by now irrelevant, he said, but none of Manhattan’s present architects had been able to think of a new motto…
The Russians read it. It said ‘THERE IS NO EASY WAY FROM THE EARTH TO THE STARS’. Looking at the starry sky reflected in the narrow rectangle of their pool, one architect/lifeguard, still dripping wet from the last lap, answered for all of them: ‘We just went from Moscow to New York…’
Then they drove into the water to assume their familiar formation.
5 MINUTES LATER
In front of Welfare Palace Hotel, the raft of the Constructivists collides with the raft of the Medusa: optimism vs. pessimism.
The steel of the pool slices through the plastic of the sculpture like a knife through butter.
Excerpted from Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan (1978)