"Cool Pools: Containing the Joy of Water"
by Mary Heebner
Destination Wine Country, Santa Barbara,
In the sixties in Southern California—before friends had a license to drive to the beach—summers were defined by our neighbor’s swimming pool, surrounded by concrete and a hissing emerald lawn. Green-blonde hair, dark tan, cannonball plunges, endless games of Marco Polo, and lying shivering and waterlogged on the sun-warmed cement, transistor tuned to the Beetles. Who knew that chlorine, UV rays, and concrete could conjure so much joy?
Over the next 40 years pools became more environmentally conscious, less caustic, and more wedded to the natural surroundings. Diving boards were out, edgeless views to infinity in; chlorine out, salt water in; garish turquoise out, natural boulders and unusual finishes definitely in. One thing hasn’t changed, however. In summer, the pool becomes the heart of the home.
Infinity. As a catchphrase, what comes to mind are vistas into the oceanic beyond where water seamlessly defies boundaries and reaches toward sea and sky. The twist on the infinite is Trish Clark Palmer’s infinity pool in Santa Ynez. Designed by landscape architect Kathryn Dole, its bird’s eye view sends one’s spirit soaring over valleys and sloping hills—until a nimble golden lab walks the pool’s edge bringing infinity back home. Nicknamed “Bali in the Valley,” the saltwater pool fits perfectly into the topography of its hilltop setting. Steps from the master bedroom lead to a spa overlooking the pool, an alluring haven from the summer heat.
This is a salt-water pool, breaking down into a more natural form of chlorine. According to Richard Dietz of Aqua Creations in Ventura, salt-water pools generate chlorine on the spot making it easier to regulate chlorine levels. “Essentially, they make people feel good,” he says.
In the heart of Wine County, the Koehler family pool, originally designed for television producer Douglas Cramer, is a delightsome watery folly. Foreshortened like a Japanese painting, a series of five terraces begins with a contemplative koi pond at the top. A cascading waterfall frames an intimate Jacuzzi pond before culminating in a spectacular 16-foot-deep pool, rimmed with boulders perfect for leaping off into the refreshing water.
“At night it’s totally different. The frogs are outrageous—a riot that really surprises our guests,” says Kory Koehler, adding, “In the moonlight, with a glass of Kohler Cabernet (from their 30-year-old vines), a slight breeze shimmying through the oaks, and the sounds of water, what could be better?” The Kohlers use a combination of saline, solar, and traditional power to heat the pool, although Peter Kohler says his kids prefer the water naturally cool, especially when summer steams up the Valley.
Natural pools are among today’s cutting-edge pools but landscape architect Isabelle Greene, was cutting-edge years before the term was coined, bringing her the quiet elegance to the design of natural pools for decades. In the 1970s, she designed a Montecito pool using boulders on the property. Rather than placing her pool on the lawn, she created a “pond” where Nature might have intended, nestled in plush Korean grass, surrounded by a ring of mature oaks. The pool’s gunnite bottom is an impressionist palette of mottled teal, indigo, and moss. Over the years it has become even more embedded in the landscape.
Another pool innovation comes from architect Michel Saint-Sulpice. Lamenting that his fair-skinned wife could only swim before dawn, he contrived an ingenious pool shading system for swimmers who love plein air swims, but not UV rays. His retractable ramada, consists of six motorized awnings over the pool, fabricated in watery aquamarine Sunbrella cloth over an armature designed to withstand high winds. When thte wind kicks up in the Montecito hills, a sensor on the roof causes the awnings to retract automatically.
Lacking the topography for an infinity pool, or the site for a natural pool, designers and builders can still create cool pools with a range of stunning new surfaces, including formulations of fiberglass and plaster, polished plaster, granite glass, custom colors, and mosaic tiles. As Jim Gaskin of Tri County Pools says, “No one uses cement anymore.”
Among the most arresting of these new materials are the Lightstream glass tiles of David Knox. An art form in glass, his light-catching, jewel-like mosaic tiles bring to mind the way light plays with the ocean currents, especially at sunset. The effect is extraordinary.
Pool design has come a long way from those sixties summers, but the joy of water, its splash and panache, its ability to calm, renew, and invigorate, lives on. In our Mediterranean climate of winter rain and summer drought, and in a time when water conservation and environmental consciousness is more essential than ever, the closer we look to nature for inspiration, the better.