Can even drought end California’s love affair with private swimming pools?
The Mojave desert stretches in all directions, sand and scrub as far as the eye can see, with no road or trail, no marker or signpost, to indicate that here, in the middle of a wilderness furnace, sits a swimming pool.
The pristine pool, five feet deep, five feet wide and 11 feet long, is no California mirage. It is an art installation.
An Austrian artist, Alfredo Barsuglia, created the sculpture, entitled Social Pool, and declared it open to the public. Before plunging in, you need to contact the MAK Center for Art and Architecture in West Hollywood to request its secret GPS coordinates and a key to open the white cover. You must bring a gallon of water to replace evaporated water and return the key within 24 hours.
The installation is a critical commentary, among other things, on California’s love affair with private swimming pools. “In a desolate and drought-hit area, a pool is something absurd,” Barsuglia told the Observer. “Luxury goods are status symbols – things that are expensive but not important to survival.”
With droughts in much of the western US triggering water rationing and intense political battles, others are also wondering if private pools, long part of the iconography of California, and especially Los Angeles, have become anachronisms.
“The swimming pool’s position as status symbol and sign of health, wealth and beauty has come into question with increasing public concern over pool security, code enforcement, liability, the rising costs of maintenance and a growing awareness of the finite nature of water as a natural resource,” said Dick Hebdige, a media studies professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who wrote an essay for an exhibition about pools in southern California.
Pools are bottomless pits of wasted money and water as well as “potential lawsuits, floating rodent carcasses and summer algae blooms”, said Hebdige. “The swimming pool and the gas-guzzling automobile are the twin booster icons of LA in its mid-century glory days as the city of a future that’s no longer considered viable.”
If this is the case, Hollywood’s screenwriters will doubtless take note. On screen, private pools usually evoke the Californian dream of having your own backyard oasis, a refuge from troubles – think Dustin Hoffman floating on a lilo in The Graduate. But there is also a noir tradition: Joe Gillis, the fictional screenwriter played by William Holden, is found floating face down in the opening scene of Sunset Boulevard. Or think of the singed, mutilated teddy bear from Breaking Bad, expelled from a destroyed plane, bobbing in Walter White’s pool. (The series was originally set in LA, then moved to Albuquerque.)
Roman Polanski’s masterpiece, Chinatown, in which Jack Nicholson’s private detective uncovers murderous dealings in California’s early water wars, set a dark tone which has returned, to some extent, amid a three-year drought.
More than half of the state – 58% – is now classified as experiencing “exceptional” drought, the harshest on a five-level scale. The entire state has been in “severe” drought since May , which has had the effect of melting ski runs, drying lakes and rivers, marooning boats, draining reservoirs, and turning farms to dust. Cemeteries are cutting back on grass.
The state legislature recently passed a $7.5bn water bond measure but there is no consensus over a proposal for two 35-mile tunnels that would siphon water from the Sacramento river to the San Joaquin valley.
Some cities have turned off fountains and rationed water until – unless – rains come. California has given local agencies the authority to fine those who waste water up to $500 a day. Environmentalists are depicting green lawns – another symbol of the middle-class dream – as reckless.
Against that backdrop, private swimming pools can appear indulgent, if not selfish. The average uncovered pool in LA loses about 20,000 gallons to evaporation per year.
Those with leaks can lose an additional 700 gallons daily, according to Hebdige. His essay for the 2012 Backyard Oasis exhibition on southern Californian pools was entitled, “HOLE … swimming … floating … sinking … drowning.”
Christopher Hawthorne, the Los Angeles Times architecture critic, said private pools represented a bold 20th-century effort to cleave the metropolis from the natural world, specifically the Pacific.
“Increasingly that brashness looks misplaced or antique; instead we seem at the mercy of forces beyond our control when it comes to water,” he noted last month. “The swimming pool – like the surface parking lot, the freeway, the lawn and the single-family house – is rapidly fading as a symbolic and cultural marker of Los Angeles.”
As you descend into LA, arguably the second most striking thing about the city – after the endless, concrete vastness – is the number of turquoise pools. Big and small, rectangular and square, round and oval, thousands glint in the sun.
There are an estimated 1.1m pools in California. Thanks to two young academics, Benedikt Gross and Joseph Lee, we have a precise number for the LA basin: 43,123.
They used satellite images, public databases and crowdsourcing to produce the digital map. The resulting Big Atlas of LA Pools, which runs to 6,000 pages, concluded that the typical swimming pool in LA is oval and measures 16 feet, four inches by 33 feet, six inches.
Beverly Hills, with 2,481, had the highest number per capita. Long Beach, with 2,859, and Rancho Palos Verdes, at 2,592, were also privileged. Two neighbourhoods, Watts and Florence, which are predominantly poor, Latino and African-American, had no backyard pools at all.
Drought notwithstanding, there is little sign that the artistic and environmental critique will signal a popular revolt.
Barsuglia, whose desert installation runs until 30 September, thinks private pools will probably endure as symbols of glamour and status: “Most people are aware of the fragility of the environment but only a few will change their way of living. That’s one problem with the capitalistic democracy – nobody takes personal responsibility for society.”
[‘Woman’s legs with blank screen smart phone at swimming pool’ on Shutterstock]