Ancient cultures elevated the ritual of bathing to a fine art. It was never merely about getting clean. The Romans struck business deals at their bathhouses. Odalisques alternated coffee and gossip with dips in the pool in Turkish harem baths. In central Europe, people visited opulent Hapsburg-era spas to take mineral baths for their health and well-being. The buildings in which this social intercourse occurred were extraordinarily lavish; walls and floors were covered in marble or tiled with intricate mosaics.
In our culture, private pools have taken the place of public bathhouses, but bathing still requires the proper ambience. Modern designers typically tap the architectural vocabulary of classical Greek and Roman temples and Islamic mosques, which may be why some poolhouses possess the stately presence of shrines. But while the temple is for prayer, the poolhouse is definitely for play. In the hands of today’s designers, poolhouses have become exquisite odes to the joys of swimming.
“I love the pool as a focus for entertaining,” says New York designer Geoffrey Bradfield, whose own Moroccan-inspired poolhouse and colonnaded terrace in Palm Beach have often served as the setting for his alfresco dinner parties. Bradfield designed his columned cabana, which doubles as a guesthouse, around a Charles Baskerville painting of an Arab rider on a rearing horse that once hung in the breakfast room of Mar-a-Lago, Marjorie Merriweather Post’s estate in Palm Beach. Trefoil arches, columns, and painted faux finishes on the walls create the effect of an arcaded palace from The Arabian Nights. Mirrors on one side of the room give the impression of infinite space. “There is a strong element of fantasy here,” says Bradfield.
The indoor Roman pool at San Simeon, William Randolph Hearst’s estate in central California, is a fitting tribute to the monumental Baths of Caracalla, built in Rome about 2,000 years ago. Hearst’s architect, Julia Morgan, used Caracalla as her design brief. The indoor pool is completely enclosed, with cerulean mosaic walls and curving, vaulted arches that reach up to the star-dusted ceiling; the reflection of the stars in the water gives the illusion of a floating universe. The decoration was inspired by the mosaics in a mausoleum in Ravenna, Italy, which, it is said, entranced Hearst during a visit. The pool complex, which includes dressing rooms, exercise rooms, and a handball court, was the scene of many lively revels during Hearst’s star-studded house parties.
Architect Alexander Gorlin also drew inspiration from Italy when he designed a bathing pavilion for fashion and interior designer Adrienne Vittadini at her home on Long Island. “I was paying tribute to the goddess of fashion and beauty,” Gorlin says. The structure was created in the form of an Italian tempietto (a small temple), from which Vittadini can gaze out to a “rhyming of water with water,” as Gorlin describes the layers of water—the pool and then the bay beyond. Drapes and columns frame a seating area that resembles a theater stage, and a central sofa for lounging adds drama to the scene. The end result blurs the line between spectator and performer; swimmers can look up at the poolhouse as though it is a proscenium, and those on the stage can look back at the cavorting swimmers.
If Gorlin’s Long Island poolhouse is a temple, then a bathing complex built into the rocks at Cap d’Ail on the French Riviera is a cathedral. It was created by the Fondation de Coubertin, a consortium of French artisans who combined their skills in wood-, metal-, and stonework to complete a glassed-in canopy over the pool that reveals the craggy cliffs above. The soaring enameled steel ribs resemble the flying buttresses of Gothic architecture. Chicago architect Richard Ruvin, who is the U.S. representative for the consortium, notes that the structure makes it possible to take advantage of a stunning location. “You not only have the view all around, but up to the sky as well,” he says. “It’s why clients come to us when they want the pool to be open to the natural environment, but still be protected.”
The poolhouse can act as a structural link between the main house and the garden. Gorlin acknowledged this relationship in a recent project that involved transforming a greenhouse into a changing room for the pool. “I saw the greenhouse as a charming piece of architecture, so I convinced the owners not to tear it down,” he says. “I made the changing rooms freestanding structures within the greenhouse, like little pavilions within the pavilion.”
Devotees who have the luxury of their own pools at home often build their own temples to bathing. “Like diamonds, poolhouses have an ambiguous sense of size,” says Gorlin. “They may be relatively small, but they have maximum impact.”
The poolhouse is in fact a sensual jewel box where people shed their cares along with their clothes and enter a fantasy environment.
Geoffrey Bradfield, 212.758.1773; Alexander Gorlin, 212.229.1199,
www.gorlinarchitect.com; Richard Ruvin, Weissmann Ruvin Design Partnership, 866.585.1200