In London, a British capital city mad for both razzle-dazzle bridges and vertiginous architectural add-ons, the most alluring/terrifying amenity at an upcoming luxury housing development on the south bank of the Thames just happens to be a swimming pool.
Yes, a swimming pool.
But, as you can see, said swimming pool isn’t so much an ordinary pool for quick dips with kids and lap swimming. It's a transparent, water-filled acrylic sky bridge of sorts that connects two condo towers at the 10th story level — a dizzying height of 115 feet. Essentially, the so-called “sky pool” enables the development’s well-heeled residents to doggy paddle through the sky, from tower to tower. While it’s hard to classify the pool as an elevator-avoiding shortcut — the function that most building-spanning sky bridges of the non-aquatic variety serve — there’s no doubt something novel about having to don a bathing suit in order to visit friends who live in the neighboring tower.
Harold and Claudine in the East Tower are having a little get-together tonight. Shall we swim over, perhaps?
The structure-free sky pool is the jaw-dropping — some would say eye roll-inducing, but more on that in a bit — centerpiece of Embassy Gardens, a huge mixed-use development (offices, restaurants, retail, a hotel and 2,000 luxury residences starting at £602,000) under construction in Nine Elms, a once-gritty riverfront district of southwest London around the old Battersea Power Station that, in just a couple of short years, will be completely unrecognizable due to a massive "regeneration" scheme — one of the largest, if not the largest, in Europe.
Developed by Ballymore Group, the 15-acre complex gets its name from the new Dutch Embassy and the Kieran Timberland-designed United States Embassy that will eventually flank the development. The U.S. Embassy, currently situated just steps from Hyde Park at Grosvenor Square, is expected to be completed by the end of 2016.
“Wander past the green glaze bricks, beneath the azure pool in the sky, through the lush ravine, and into the stately arms of the lobby. You are home,” entices the Embassy Gardens website.
With an anticipated completion date of summer 2019, Embassy Gardens’ flashiest/spashiest feature was designed by Arup Associates in collaboration with structural engineering firm Eckersley O’ Callaghan and Reynolds Polymer Technology, a Colorado-headquartered company specializing in the design and installation of transparent underwater tunnels and very large aquarium windows.
Brian Eckersley of Eckersley O’ Callaghan details the unique engineering challenges inherent with designing a swimming pool-in-the-sky to the BBC:
They move slightly differently in the wind so one big problem is that we're trying to span potentially a fragile structure between these two buildings that are moving separately. You've got the sides trying to burst apart as well as the weight of the water being carried by the structure. And you have to transfer all these loads to supporting buildings while they themselves have a tendency to move around relative to each other.
Eckersley also addresses rampant misconceptions that the pool will be glass-bottomed: “Using acrylic, you end up with a more transparent overall structure because its refractive index is similar to that of water — you don't get that distortion at the interface between the material and water that you get with glass."
In terms of all-important measurements, the building-linking basin will be 16-feet wide and 10-feet-deep. The pool’s length of 82 feet is about half that of an Olympic-size pool (50 meters or 160 feet). The clear acrylic casing itself will be a little under 8-inches thick. And, as, mentioned, the pool will be elevated at a height of 115-feet in order to connect Embassy Garden’s dual-roof “Sky Deck," an al fresco communal area complete with bar, spa and, oddly, an orangery (aka a citrus fruit-growing greenhouse).
As you see for the design renderings, swimming isn't the only method in which residents must traverse the gap between the two high-rise buildings: there's an open-air footbridge that spans parallel to the pool.
"My vision for the sky pool stemmed from a desire to push the boundaries in the capability of construction and engineering. I wanted to do something that had never been done before,” Ballymore Group CEO Sean Mulryan recently proclaimed in a statement. “The Sky Pool's transparent structure is the result of significant advancements in technologies over the last decade. The experience of the pool will be truly unique, it will feel like floating through the air in central London.”
While this rather fantastical bit of never-attempted-before boundary-pushing certainly makes for excellent PR and a tantalizing batch of mock-ups, Mulryan’s vision (a vision financed by a Malaysian real estate investment group EcoWorld) of high-end and high-up aquatic activity is already drowning in criticism, not so much over the audacious design itself but over the timing and, most importantly, the place.
One does wonder how the residents of other cities would react to the idea of a private swimming pool-cum-sky bridge at a luxury housing development —that is to say, cities that aren’t in the throes of an affordable housing crisis like London very much is. Perhaps the idea would go over more, ahem, swimmingly.
Or perhaps, not.
Whatever the case, the headlines in the British press say it all:
From Time Out: “Those posh Nine Elms flats are getting a ‘sky pool,’ so the rich can look down on you while they swim”
From The Independent: “Nine Elms ‘sky pool’: Luxury London flat owners will be able to swim while literally looking down on everyone else”
From The Guardian: “The ‘sky pool’ is just the start: London prepares for a flood of bathing oligarchs”
Equating the sky pool to an outstretched middle finger (a prune-y one, no doubt) that will probably never be built due to “structural and regulatory reasons,” CityLab’s Kriston Capps writes:
Surely nothing bad could come from the decision to build an impossibly wondrous amenity that is accessible exclusively to a city’s very wealthiest residents. Certainly there’s no reason to worry about building a jewel in plain sight of all but out of reach to almost everyone. The developers behind Nine Elms in London, anyway, must be pretty confident that the city’s residents are not this close to grabbing pitchforks and torches. Because the developers intend to dangle a potent symbol of inequality over all of London’s heads.
Most critics have focused on the fact that deep-pocketed Londoners, previously confined to basement swimming holes, will now be free to flaunt their wealth while floating above the city in a clear-bottomed pool. But others have brought up a very valid point: will there even be anyone to take a dip in the pool considering that its expected Embassy Gardens’ high-priced flats will be snatched up largely by absentee foreign investors when they hit the market in September?
Although difficult to disregard the context surrounding Embassy Gardens and its bonkers-looking swimming pool, try imagine yourself taking the plunge: would you do it? Or does it looks altogether too terrifying?