Frank Lloyd Wright never just plopped a house on a passive piece of land. He found ways to activate the yards, often with garden walls that reached from the house into the landscape. But the architect, eyes twinkling as he made mischief, noted that to activate the front yard, one just places the mailbox at the street, to guarantee a daily stroll across the lawn.
Swimming pools were not yet rampant in the American home in Wright’s time, but since then, homeowners with pools have been getting more bang from their pond by building poolhouses with more than just changing rooms. A pool pavilion can be a vacation home on the same property. A mailbox at the street and a poolhouse in the back activate both yards, property line to property line.
Poolhouses equipped with some combination of a kitchen, a bar and seating and media areas may be a recent phenomenon, but since the Renaissance, there has been a long and related architectural tradition of pavilions and follies in the garden. They were oneiric or just practical—Romantic ruins triggering thoughts of an idealized classical past or greenhouses where glass walls offered plants and people warmth out of season. The history of garden follies and pavilions suggests that architects can tilt the poolhouse toward delight, creating a structural confection of great invention, like a fantasy dessert.
When the New York firm Hariri ‘ Hariri—Architecture was asked to design a poolhouse in suburban Connecticut, the architects quickly concluded that the aesthetics should be a primary focus. “It was going to dominate the view from our clients’ house, so it had to be sculptural—you’re constantly looking at it,” says architect Gisue Hariri.
Some sculpture is figural and closed, like a statue, but Hariri and her sister Mojgan borrowed from a tradition of open form dating from early Modernism, creating an angular archway that parallels the entire length of the lap pool. “We used the arch to frame the landscape, so your eye travels through,” says Gisue Hariri.
The architects designed the arch to relate intimately to the pool. It shades the shallow end and hovers over one side of the pool so that the deck of the pavilion appears to float on water. There are tall and short, wide and narrow, indoor and outdoor spaces, with steps up and down, which create diversified areas for socializing, dining, sunning, lounging or just dangling feet. “Instead of isolating the pool, we created an interactive association knitting the house and the water,” says Hariri. In one continuous gesture, the floor plane turns up at the end as a wall and then turns again to become the roof.
Architectural history is not teeming with poolhouses. But on the grounds of the old Delta Plantation in South Carolina along the Savannah River, the context—including a traditional brick mansion, with oak trees dripping Spanish moss—and the desire of its owners, an insurance executive and his wife, to entertain, suggested a classicized pavilion to house an indoor lap pool. “Everything began with the site,” says project designer Terry Pylant. But the site took him and design principal Jim Strickland—both of Historical Concepts, of Peachtree City, Georgia—far away, to Palladian villas, which had influenced plantation houses, and to orangeries.
They bookended the lap pool with a bath area and a fireside lounge. A long skylight parallels the pool. A bank of French doors on either side admits light all year round, and they can be opened in clement weather, as in traditional garden pavilions. Ironically, this evocative poolhouse, of remote historical provenance, is technologically complex, with two climate systems, for dehumidification and temperature.
Across the continent, David Kesler, a Berkeley architect, was asked by David and Cristy Clarke to design a poolhouse on a property in suburban Orinda, California, with a traditional two-story shingled house and an oval pool set against a picturesque tumble of boulders, all nested within a sylvan setting bordered by a dense mantle of trees. The main house suggested tradition, but instead the clients wanted the Modernist architect to design a Modernist structure, in the spirit of follies that add something different to existing contexts. “They wanted sculpture,” says Kesler. “They were pushing art.”
At first the architect proposed a Cubist structure, but the distorted forms were too chaotic for the clients: “They preferred a fluid line that would sit softly in the landscape,” he says.
The answer to what the design wanted to be was right in the yard. Kesler took the shape of the pool and transposed the geometry to the roof of the poolhouse. The oval shape cantilevers forward over the patio like the visor of an enthusiastic baseball cap. The play of shapes recalls Richard Serra’s famous Torqued Ellipses. Made of poured concrete, the enclosed pavilion itself anchors the roof and contains a living area, a bath and a kitchen. “We used reinforced concrete, because it feels raw and primitive and because it’s a very fluid, abstract material.” Cherry cabinetry and paneling warm the space.
Practically speaking, the poolhouse is a liberating building type, because, as with lofts, the functions are flexible, and architects can work this small building into a cross between an architectural thesis and a jewel. Gisue Hariri says, “I’m hoping that we’ll see more of this integration of the pool and poolhouse, not as an afterthought, like a pool with a garage, but as a main focus of the landscape.”