You Should Know: The First Kidney-Shaped Pool (1939)

Noormarkku, Finland

Originally printed in our October 2016 issue.

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The first kidney-shaped pool in the world is not where you might think it would be, and this is the first skate session ever in the pool. It was built in 1939 in the courtyard of the mansion called Villa Mairea, in Noormarkku, Finland. Attempts have been made in the past to get the pool skateable, but without success.

An article by Finland's largest newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, in 2014 woke our interest to visit the pool without permission. We decided to try our luck with a small group and take a large risk. The property is one of the most significant protected areas in Finland. As a result we had to plan everything very carefully. On a spring weekend, we arrived at the spot at five in the morning before sunrise, in order to guarantee that no one would be awake. There were challenges—300-kilometer distance, the previous evening's rain, and the temperature dropped to freezing temperatures. This is what we got. —Justus Hirvi

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Below is the translated article that appeared in the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper article:
Villa Mairea was completed in 1939. The world-famous architect Alvar Aalto and his wife, Aino Aalto, designed the house, the yard, and the interior of their friends Harry and Maire Gullichsen's property. The villa came to be a unique piece of art, which is now one of the top works of 1900s architecture. Villa Mairea belongs to a time when Alvar Aalto moved from the minimalist functionalism to more organic but modern architectural expression. This was a pleasant project for the Aaltos, because they had free rein to try new things—for example, the backyard swimming pool. It might be this swimming pool that changed the history of skateboarding. Until then, swimming pools were traditional rectangles, but the pool at Villa Mairea doesn't have any angles in the pool. The top view of the pool edge line forms a kidney-like shape. The ground is round, and it's divided into two parts: a deep end and a shallow end. Fast-forward nine years later to 1948, in Sonoma, California, Jean and Dewey Donnell's private home—called the Donnell Garden—was completed. It got a lot of coverage in the press, and the house style was copied widely. One of the most copied features of the house was the swimming pool, which became the modern Californian lifestyle symbol.

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The Donnell Garden swimming pool brings to mind the previously completed Villa Mairea pool. Seen from the top, the edges of the pool are almost the same, and the bottom is also round. Coincidence? Maybe not. Landscape architect Thomas Church was in charge of the Donnell Garden design plan. He was Alvar Aalto's old acquaintance. Church had made his first trip to Finland in 1937 with his wife, Betsy, and architect William Wurster. Aalto gave them a tour around Helsinki and took them to Paimio Sanatorium and Sunila paper mills, which he designed. The architects met later in the United States, and Church's style was said to have changed after he met Alvar Aalto—symmetry and angularity changed to irregular, rounder shapes.

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So how is skateboarding related to all of this?

In 1975, the state of California experienced an unprecedented drought. Restaurants offered water only upon request, and in some places people ate from disposable plates. Unwashed cars were a source of pride. People put bricks in their toilet water tanks so that they would use less water. Under such conditions, all the pools, including ones made in Donnell Garden fashion, were not to be filled with water. However, they soon were found by skateboarders and became their new playgrounds. The tricks invented in the 1970s in the empty swimming pools of California are still being done 40 years later, and skateparks still use those similar concrete basins—whose role model is likely to be found in Villa Mairea. Is it all because of Aalto? Were those concrete waves that skaters love copied from him? Some believe so. One believer is landscape architect Janne Saario (Element Euro rider some years ago), a longtime skateboarder who has designed a number of skateparks both in Finland and abroad. For example, Saario designed the skatepark in Helsinki Eläintarha, as well as parks in Rotterdam, the Netherlands; and Varberg, Sweden, recently. Saario himself has drawn a number of skateable pools.

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He saw the Villa Mairea swimming pool for the first time on a school field trip. "I looked at it and I thought it was just like a skateboarding pool. I wished I had my board with me," he recalls. After that, Saario studied it further and found a connection between Thomas Church, and ended up with a conclusion that the waves in Church's pools were modeled off the Donnell Garden pool. "It's like a direct copy." As proof, Saario combed his office bookshelves for landscape architecture for a work that refers to Church's and Aalto's friendship, and how Church's style changed after meeting Aalto.

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There are many written sources that refer to this friendship too. The Churches are said to be distributors of Aalto's furniture and glassware in their home country. Still, Saario doesn't think there is scandalous plagiarism at work here: "In art there have always been borrowing, and you get inspired about others' work."