The Unexpected History of the Kidney-Shaped Swimming Pool

Throughout the last few weeks, Europe has seen record temperatures and one of the hottest starts to a summer in modern history. For many, the first port of call when a heatwave hits is the nearest swimming pool. While British lidos are growing in popularity after decades of neglect, those on the continent, who have more consistently sun-drenched seasons, are most likely to be found sunning themselves by a private pool. Outside Europe and across the pond, the kidney-shaped swimming pool is synonymous with West Coast glamour and Californian skateboard culture, but where did this classic pool style originate?

Architect Pierre Koenig’s iconic Stahl House, Los Angeles. Photo by Sterling Davis on Unsplash

Most architecture historians look to the Donnell Garden, located in Sonoma, California. Designed by landscape architect Thomas Church, with Lawrence Halprin and architect George Rockrise, for the family of Dewey and Jean Donnell; the garden is now recognised as a Modernist icon and one of the best preserved examples of its time. Completed in 1948, the garden gained enormous popularity for its charming but unusual abstracted forms, including a kidney-shaped pool. Frequently photographed and splashed across many magazine covers, the Donnell Garden soon became a symbol of a modern style of California living that took place both indoors and outdoors. Predominantly, it became synonymous with a style of architecture and landscaping that focuses on creating fluid transitions between the two areas, with both awarded the same level of importance. As the profundity of the home’s radical approach indoor to outdoor fusion, the demand for versatile, robust materials and products that could cater to this new stylistic want. While radical back in the mid-20th Century, we, as designers, still feel that movement between indoor and outdoor spaces should be seamless and stylish and that’s why we created the outdoor rugs of the Rain or Shine collection.

Topfloor’s Berry Rugs, by Esti Barnes.

As word of the magnificent Donnell Garden spread, so did its influence. Suddenly, Californian home-owners wanted their own slice of sinuous style and many found themselves having their own kidney-shaped swimming pools built. What happened next was unexpected, but continues to impact landscapes around the world today. Some time in the mid-1970s, Southern California became trapped in a period of intense drought, and swimming pools sat empty, drained to save water, and largely unused. However, around the time, modern skateboarding was evolving and these seemingly redundant pools became much-loved skate spots for pioneers of the underground sport. Today, skateparks globally mirror the smooth curves of an empty swimming pool.

Venice Beach skateboarding, California. Photo by Julien Lanoy on Unsplash

Despite being championed as a product of the Donnell Garden’s influence, the uncovering of history of the swimming pool took a Scandinavian turn when Finnish skateboarder Janne Saario heard the story while studying Architecture. Saario, inspired by the California skate scene, went on to become a sponsored skater and competed in cities all over the world. Through skateboarding, Saario says, he fell in love with architecture and design, and went on to study architecture in University. As he heard more about the kidney-shaped pool legacy, he began to question its origins, having been aware of a much older but similarly shaped pool designed by none other than Alvar Aalto.

Aalto was renowned for his curving partitions, rounded tiles, and undulating counters — all crisp and functional, but a little more natural and cosy than other Modernist works. While many Modernists toyed with sterile concrete and clean white paint, Aalto began to work with natural wood, bending, gluing and veneering it in previously unseen ways. When art collector and lumber heiress Marie Gullischen asked Aalto to design her country home, the Villa Mairea, Aalto included a pool, defined, of course, by his signature curvaceous style.

Villa Mairea swimming pool, desinged by Alvar Aalto.

So that leaves us with one question, how did Aalto’s influence get from rural Finland to the West Coast of America? Rumour has it that Donnell Garden architect Thomas Church, visited Finland with his wife Betsy in 1937. The pair somehow located out Aalto’s home studio and decided to drop in. Aalto welcomed them in and the unlikely trio formed a firm friendship. It’s plausible that designs for the Villa Mairea (and its pool) were on display in Aalto’s studio while Church was visiting. This might have inspired the soon to be constructed Donnell Garden swimming pool.